Atlanta, Georgia/Long Binh, Vietnam.
Once again, we missed being together on our anniversary. It was not until the next year, our third anniversary, that we were together on the day. By then, I’d forgotten which day it was. For years, I thought it was two days later, January 26, which was, instead, the anniversary of the day we’d met.
I settled into a routine. I enrolled for a class at Georgia State University, to continue working on my Bachelor’s degree. I applied for baby-sitting jobs advertised in the paper, so I could take our son with me. One potential employer called me back and asked if I were willing to do modeling. Cautiously, I said, yes, but told him the reason I was applying for baby-sitting jobs was because I’d be bringing my toddler son with me. He quickly agreed a modeling job would not be suitable. I started baby-sitting for a woman who was working on her Ph.D. and teaching part-time at Georgia State. Her son was six months younger than mine.
My brother came over on leave and we went out to a nightclub, with David, Jr. crawling around the floor under the musicians.
While I tried to go to the pool at our apartment building daily, most days it rained at 5:00, after baby-sitting.
I bought a breast enhancer device thinking I finally had the time to exercise regularly and that would be a nice surprise the next time I saw my husband. He later told me gently, under questioning, that, no, my breasts were not bigger but they certainly were firmer.
I gave myself weekends at home, alternating with weekends with one or the other set of parents.
People tried to be reassuring, when they knew my husband was in Vietnam for a year.
“Oh, a year will go by in no time!”
A year. 365 days of waiting, 24/7, for a knock on the door telling me I was a widow raising a toddler alone. Since the end of World War II, family members no longer get telegrams informing them they’ve lost a family member. A pair of service members, in uniform, call on you personally to tell you of your loss, with someone to catch you if you collapse or hit the messenger.
By Christmas, three months in, I’d dropped to less than 100 pounds. So, this was what depression felt like. A numbness. I had to remind myself to eat. I didn’t know I was depressed. I wasn’t crying. And, I had a toddler to feed. I made tv dinners every night and we ate together. But, I was dropping weight precipitously. From a starting point of 110 pounds, on a 5’6” frame, a 10-pound weight loss moved me into danger territory. I started concentrating on eating more and recognizing the depression for what it was.
Although my husband had family in Atlanta who loved inviting us to dinner, otherwise I knew no one. The neighbor across the hall invited me over for dinner from time to time. Work and school and parents kept me out and about.
My mother-in-law told me stories about soldiers in World War II, who were in it for the duration, not a fixed one-year tour, like Vietnam. Sometimes they never reestablished a relationship with their sons when they returned. There was no coming back from “Son, you’re the man of the house while I’m gone,” to, several years later taking back the role of father. To guard against this, I read his father’s letters to our son, told him what I was saying in my letters, and we made audio recordings to send off. Most days, we looked through our scrapbook of family pictures.
Our letters to each other settled into a pattern. His letters took five days to arrive. When I heard a news story about Long Binh post being overrun and a soldier killed, I knew it would be five days before a letter arrived, written safely after that incident. I called the news station.
“Do you have any more details about the incident at Long Binh? Do you know yet who was killed?”
The reporter who answered called back to his colleagues.
“Does anyone know anything else about the Long Binh story?”
I heard laughter in the background, a busy newsroom, but no one knew anything. Yes, someone wants to know if she’s a widow before she hears the knock on the door.
He arranged to call me. Short-wave radio operators and the military had established a hop-link of line-of-sight radio signals, connecting from Vietnam to anywhere in the U.S, called MARS. He let me know when to expect a call. There were four of five operators connecting the lines. At the end of the call, I dropped my voice and said, softly,
“I love you.”
“What did you say?”
“She says she loves you,” “She said she loves you,” “She said she loves you” echoed down the line as each operator relayed the message. We never made another MARS call.
My mother sent a lighted, decorated tabletop Christmas tree to Vietnam. I sent brownies, hoping bar cookies would survive. When he came home, he said the crumbs were delicious.
After nine months, he arranged for us to meet in Hawaii on a five-day leave. I left our son with his parents. As the taxi approached the hotel, the driver said, “There’s someone waiting for you.” My plane had been late, so I missed the Army’s staged hugging, kissing and crying event on the post. We only left the hotel room for meals, a half-hour beach visit and a short shopping trip in Waikiki where I bought the material I used for a dress I wore on our 25th anniversary trip back to Hawaii.
By the end of the one-year tour, in October, our son was starting to greet every soldier in uniform,
The afternoon and evening he was scheduled to come home, I washed and polished the sun-damaged red Toyota. And, our son ran to greet his real father-soldier in the airport.
The next morning, David, Jr. woke us to cries of,
“Mommy! Daddy! A butterfly!” Our son had kept a place for his father in his heart.
We bought a tent and sleeping bags to take a slow, two-week camping trip from Georgia back to Washington, DC, where a job at IBM was waiting, now that his nearly three years in the Army was up. At one site, the camp owners’ cat perched on a tree trunk. David, Jr., by now two-and-a-half, outfitted with a fishing rod, just like his Daddy’s, promised the cat,
“You stay here and I’ll bring you back a fish.”
The cat left the tree as soon as father and son were out of sight, returning minutes before they came back.
David gave him the promised fish.
Silver Spring, Maryland. We found a temporary apartment, our fifth address in three years, that gave us time to look for more permanent quarters. In our first eight years, we had 12 addresses. I decorated a tabletop tree with Origami birds, just like my great-aunt Helen, a missionary to Japan her entire career, had taught me. Then, we went back to Georgia for Christmas.
I never bought another tv dinner. I still make Origami birds for random children that cross my path.