Days to Go

The countdown to my son’s latest return from The United States Military Academy at West Point began about the same time he gave me a quick wave from the opposite end of airport security as he departed for his Cadet Field Training at the end of June.

For the remainder of that day, his little sister cried all the tears she could possibly shed, and I wandered the house looking for a chore that would not remind me of something we did together when he was home for this most recent visit.

Countdown

Days to Go…Days Done…

I found myself standing in front of a set of glass jars that sit on the counter between the kitchen and the great room–the Army Black Knights logo on the top of one and the Army mule logo on the other.

The one on the right sat loaded to the top with black and gold marbles (the USMA school colors). The sign on its front read, “Days Done…” The jar on the left read, “Days to Go…”, and it had sat empty for the last 16 days.

As I stood looking at the jars, I heard a sad, little voice beside me ask, “When’s he coming home, Momma?”

“Well,” I sighed, “Let’s find out.”

Taking the full jar from the counter, I felt its weight in my hand, pulled the cap from the top, and dumped the marbles in a shiny black and gold pile on the coffee table. Together, the Young One and I counted out 28 marbles, being sure to have an even number of each color.

Twenty-eight days is the smallest number we have added to the jar since we started our countdown ritual, and it will probably be the last time we will mark such a short separation. Unlike students at civilian colleges, USMA cadets do not get a three-month summer break from their school. Instead, they spend the summer undergoing military and leadership training that prepares them for their future in the US Army.

While my daughter dropped the marbles into “Days to Go”, I returned the now empty “Days Done” to its spot on the counter, feeling sad that it was almost weightless compared to just a few minutes ago.

The Young One brought “Days to Go” back to sit next to its partner, and then she stood back to examine the two together.

“That’s all we have to do?”

I joined her, gave my own examination, and declared, “Yes, that’s all we have to do.”

“And each day at bedtime, I’m gonna put a marble in the other jar?”

“That’s right,” I nodded.

“Then he’ll be home?” she asked with the start of a smile lighting her teary eyes.

“Yes.”

“YAY!” She raised her arms in victory and jumped up and down in the way I have come to learn means she is beyond excited. “Then I’m gonna give him the BIGGEST hug EVER and say, ‘I MISSED you!'”

“Me too!”, I exclaimed and pulled her into a hug, so we could bounce and dance around the room together.

I had made the two jars and started the bedtime tradition last March after my son had returned to West Point following his Spring Break.  I thought this would be a good way for my daughter to mark the time between her big brother’s visits. At five years old, she does not fully understand that a month, or two months or (gulp) six months is not the same as “tomorrow” or “today”.

What I have come to realize, however, is that the marbles in the jar are not just another game meant to pacify a pre-schooler. They are a visual representation of challenge and accomplishment for a momma missing her son. If I was able to do 50 days last time, I can do 28 days this time, and next time I will be able to do 60, or 90, or 120. As long as I can keep moving marbles from one jar to the other, I can do as many days as it takes because it means I am one day closer to embracing my boy!

Tonight, the Young One took the last of the 28 marbles from “Days to Go” and dropped it with a happy tinkle into “Days Done”. Then she mounted the stairs to her room with a skip in her step and a smile on her face.

In 10 days, we will start all over again.  I’m not looking forward to counting out enough marbles to take us from August 7 to December 22, but for tonight, “Days to Go” is empty, and I am brimming with excitement too.

Stiletto Momma

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Selfless Courage on Far Away Beaches

I’ve been seeing visions of bomb craters and grave markers today. Both rest atop high cliffs overlooking Utah Beach and Omaha Beach in Normandy, France–the site of bloody battles fought as Allied Forces invaded those beaches in an attempt to liberate Europe from the Germans 68 years ago today.

American Cemetery

The American Cemetery near Omaha Beach

For the most part, the anniversary of D-Day goes unnoticed. Unless it happens to be a milestone anniversary like the 50th or the 75th, the media barely mentions the passing of another year. This morning, for example, one of the top stories on NBC’s Today was the recent engagement of Miley Cyrus to Liam Hemsworth, not the remarkable sacrifices made by “the greatest generation.”

Today, however, even with the lack of media coverage and Facebook memes, I can’t seem to stop thinking about those beaches.

Perhaps it is because I have been there. In 2006, the Hubs and I traveled to the French Riviera and Paris on an all-expense paid trip compliments of a previous employer. After several days of touring palaces and museums, we were looking forward to a change of pace and signed up for a day-trip to Normandy. The Hubs is a veteran of the U.S. Army and has an interest in military battles, and I have always been fascinated by the history of WWII. So, we went along for the three-hour bus trip, expecting to see a cemetery and some sand.

What we saw instead was awe-inspiring. The American Cemetery that sits on a steep cliff above Omaha Beach is more than a memorial. It is a glorious shrine to fallen heros with row after row of meticulously maintained grave marker crosses. I could see no posted signs requesting silence, but the quiet was deafening because there are simply no words to express the emotions that overcame our group as we stepped onto that sacred ground.

Bomb Crater

The Hubs Poses with a Crater

Here lay thousands of soldiers who gave their lives for their country, some just mere minutes after setting foot on that foreign shore. As chimes played classic hymns of prayer, tears flowed freely while we walked among the final resting place of 9,387 brave souls, approximately 3,000 of whom gave up their lives on that first day of intense fighting. The names of another 1,557 Americans who lost their lives in Normandy, but could not be located or identified are etched on the walls of a solemn garden where many stopped to offer prayers of thanks.

Omaha Beach

Field of Craters

Further down the beach are the remains of war…grassy fields pock-marked with craters from Allied and German artillery fire…German casemates (fortified structures where weapons were stored) built so securely they barely show signs of age…bunkers left fully intact except for the empty space that at one time housed a German Panzer turret…acre after acre of preserved destruction meant to remind us of the brutality of war.

These memories alone could certainly cause my preoccupation today, but I believe the reason hits far closer to home.

Bunker

The Hubs inspects the remains of a German bunker.

Last summer, I witnessed my son taking the Oath of Service during Reception Day at the United States Military Academy at West Point. I heard him, along with more than a thousand fellow new cadets, proclaim, “I …do solemnly swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States….So help me God.” With those words, a new-found patriotism was born, and today I, like many other West Point moms, get a lump in my throat at the singing of the National Anthem. I am teary-eyed at pictures of soldiers returning from deployment, and my heart swells at the site of the Stars and Stripes waving in the breeze.

Unknown Soldier

“Known But to God”

I walked among those crosses at the American Cemetery and calculated time and again the young age of the soldiers buried there. Many were my son’s age when they walked into battle–made soldiers when they were barely men. Some were drafted into service, but others, like my son volunteered during a time of war. That, in my opinion, is the most honorable act a person can perform.

I am immensely proud of the decisions my son has made for his future, but that doesn’t mean I don’t worry about what that future will look like..

I am sure the mothers of those soldiers who fought in WWII waved the flag one minute and cried for their children’s safety the next. They probably felt their heart skip a beat when they glimpsed a man in uniform, the same way mine does when I see digitized camo. They probably smiled with comfort at a favorite garment, just as I do when I realize that wearing my favorite West Point t-shirt makes me feel closer to my child.

I can only hope that, at some point, the mothers of those lost on D-Day and the days that followed were comforted by the knowledge that their child’s sacrifice was not in vain. They are remembered. It may not be with grand ceremony, but they are remembered, and I am moved by the selflessness of their courage.

Stiletto Momma

Thy Boodle Runneth Over

I am responsible for the bounty of boodle that has taken over my oldest child’s barracks room.

Sibling Love

This is why we send boodle.

I first learned of “boodle” and the joy it can bring to both mother and child last summer while that oldest child of mine was being yelled at and put through his paces during Cadet Basic Training. In West Point circles, CBT is affectionately referred to as “Beast Barracks”, or simply, ”Beast”. In West Point Mom circles, it is known as “the dark time when I knew someone was being mean to my baby, but I couldn’t do anything about it.”

During that dark time, I was introduced to an amazing group of women dedicated to supporting each other during the 47-month roller coaster ride of life as a West Point Mom. Through the wonder of Facebook, the veteran moms of West Point scooped the new West Point moms into a warm embrace and told us we would be okay. Our children would ”slay the Beast”, and with their help, we would most certainly become fluent in military jargon.

When one exuberant mom posted that she was buying boodle to send to her son, my first reaction was to blush at the slightly illicit sound of the term. Surely, this is not something meant to be shared between a mother and her son.  As other moms chimed in at the remarkably soothing effects of boodle and the almost immediate rush of endorphins upon giving and receiving, I began to wonder if what they were doing was legal.

I was intrigued, but I was uncertain if my own heart-felt posts through social media had earned me enough trust among these women to be granted the knowledge of this well-guarded secret.  I sat back and waited for someone else to ask the questions I was too intimidated to type…

”What is boodle, and how do I get some?”

As I waited, I typed “boodle” into Wikipedia only to find out that boodle is not some type of highly addictive drug. In the mid-1880s, it was a form of government bribery.  Were these moms I respected so highly really encouraging their children to bribe their way through the U.S. Military Academy?

I didn’t believe it, so back I went to Facebook in search of more clues. The newest additions to the thread created a user’s guide to procuring and packing boodle.

“The best place to find boodle is at Wal-Mart.”

“The post office is the only place to get your supplies.”

“Use a FoodSaver to keep it fresh.”

“Send extra boodle for sharing if you can.”

“Don’t forget the bubble wrap!”

Then finally…the recipe! “Just fill it with love, moms!”

LOVE! That’s what boodle is! West Point Moms send their children love in U.S. Postal Service flat rate boxes!

Boodle

The making of boodle. See the love?

“Boodle”, as defined by West Point Moms on Facebook, is a loving reminder that someone at home is thinking of you and wants to bring a smile to your face.  It is fresh baked cookies, jars of peanuts, sweet smelling shampoo, a picture of the family dog, a card filled with words of encouragement, a silly trinket from the dollar store meant to spark a funny memory shared between a mother and her child.

Now eight months later, I am an expert at assembling boodle. So much so that during Plebe Parent Weekend last month, I was astounded by the sight of my cadet’s boodle box sitting in its place of honor above his desk.

Like all parents that weekend, I was granted the opportunity to walk inside my cadet’s room to see where he spends his time outside of the classroom. I wanted to see everything–where he hung his uniforms, where he kept his socks, and of course, how he stored his boodle.

Bulging Boodle

The bulging boodle box!

He smiled when he pulled the plastic bin from the shelf, but we all braced ourselves when he unsnapped the lid. I could tell even before he pulled the top back that this might end in disaster. The sides of the container were bulging, and the lid was bowed in the middle. The boodle had exceeded the boundaries of its box and threatened to burst into a mushroom cloud of goldfish, peanuts and beef jerky.

Yes, I supply my son with boodle. The physical contents are usually my secret recipe pretzels, cookies that can be shared with his roommates and pictures drawn by his little sister. I don’t stop filling the box until I have stuffed every empty space of each package with all the love I have stored up in his absence.

His boodle runneth over…as does my love for a young man hundreds of miles away sinking his teeth into a taste from home.

Stiletto Momma

For the Love of Camo and Sparkles

The balance of power has shifted in my home. With the Older One now taking up residence at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the Hubs and the Dog are on their own against myself, my daughter and my MIL, who tipped the scales to the female side when she moved in four months ago.   I have waited many years for an extra jolt of estrogen to make my family complete, and while the Hubs may not be thrilled to be in the minority, I am finding most days to be a new and frilly adventure.

That is not to say that I don’t miss my son like crazy.  His absence is a very noticeable hole in the fabric of our family.   I miss him every day and am constantly reminded that the special relationship between a mother and her son is every bit as strong as the father/daughter one we hear so much about.

Camo Kid

Camo Kid - My son wearing Daddy's uniform!

When he was young though, I would get so frustrated while shopping for his clothes.  I was forced to wade my way through row after row of pretty pink shoes and rack after rack of frilly and sparkly clothes to get to the solitary line of boy shoes and the one lonely rack of gray and brown utilitarian boy’s clothes.  Apparently shopping for boys is not meant to be fun!

When he would play, it was with trucks.  I would watch him digging in the sand for hours, wondering how he could stand to have all that dirt under his nails, in his hair, between his toes.  I cringe just thinking about it, but he could not have been happier.

Later it was G.I. Joe and any toy that could cause imaginary destruction.  For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out the fascination with lining up those little green Army men, just to knock them down!  Given the path he has ultimately chosen for himself, I guess he knew exactly what he was doing.

Then came the athletics.  At first it was t-ball, then karate and soccer and basketball.  By the time we hit youth football, the testosterone that invaded my house was, at times, overwhelming.  The Hubs bought me “Football for Dummies” just so I could follow the dinner conversation. Here again, my son knew exactly what he wanted, as he now proudly holds a position on the defensive line for the Army Black Knights football team. (Go Army! Beat Navy!)

My daughter, on the other hand, is all girl. On the soccer field, she is usually not the one running for the ball.  She is the one spinning in circles and admiring her manicure as the ball rolls past.  She’s more in her element during her Saturday morning gymnastics class where her favorite part of the weekly session is comparing the bling on her leotard to the sparkles on her friends’ clothes.

Princess

Princess Sparkles makes a grand entrance.

And speaking of sparkles, her closet practically glimmers when we turn on the lights. There is no gray or brown to be seen, and the choices in the stores are endless.  Even her toys have an element of glitter, and she would never even dream of playing with them in the dirt.  In fact, dirt is the enemy. There is no sandbox in the backyard for my four-year-old girl as there was for my boy at that age.  Dirt is now “yucky” and “gross” and cause for tears, where 14 years ago it was cause for celebration.  She would, however, love to play with her brother’s G.I. Joes if I would let her.  Their only role in her make-believe world, though, would be to drive the convertible for Barbie.

For all their differences, however, they are so amazingly similar.  The Beanie Babies that entertained the Older One, now snuggle close to the Young One at bedtime.  This morning during gymnastics class, I watched her sprint down a trampoline runway and launch herself into a pile of foam blocks.  As she laughed, I turned to the Hubs and said, “The Older One would have loved that too!”  Somewhere in the future I suppose, she will prefer football to soccer as well. The football team, after all, has a corresponding cheerleading squad that wears skirts and does cartwheels.

Tonight, after baking cookies and donning Minnie Mouse pajamas, the Young One will peruse her bookshelf, searching for the perfect bedtime story.  Chances are high that she will choose the same one she has picked every night for the last two weeks–a well-worn copy of a Richard Scarry popup book that lived on that same shelf 14 years ago.

I will turn the pages.  She will pull the tabs with fascination, and we will both shake our heads sadly when she gets to that last popup and says, “My brother ripped that one.”  She will be momentarily saddened that she will never pull that last tab, but my heart will warm with the memory of a little boy whose hands held the same cherished book and smiled with delight when his little fingers made the pictures come alive.

Yes, the balance of power has shifted…, but not much has changed.  I still pick up scattered Beanie Babies and read bedtime stories.  I still chauffeur a child to sports practice, and I still love two children.  One is just a little further away than the other and prefers to wear digitized camo instead of sparkles.

Stiletto Momma

With a Smile and a Wave

The Cadet went back to West Point this morning, and as with all goodbyes, it is time for reflection.

The Cadet and his little shadow, I mean sister, together again!

I had been prepared by my West Point mom friends to expect changes in my son the first time he came home from USMA. The experience, especially for a plebe (a freshman in civilian speak), is intense. Order, structure and rules are hammered and drilled into them every hour of every day. They walk with their hands cupped because they remember the time during basic training when they didn’t, and their lack of focus caused the entire squad to do pushups. They make their beds with square corners because the fear of returning to their room after a long day of training only to find what they thought was a neatly made bed, tossed into a heap on the floor is overwhelming. They learn the hard way that in this new world full of overachievers, they are average.

Upperclassmen moms start preparing the plebe moms early on to expect changes in their beloved children. Small changes like saying “sir” and “ma’am”, expecting everyone to not just be on time, but to be early; and to (gasp) make their beds. The bigger changes were more worrying…depression, sullenness, anger.

As I waited at the airport a few weeks ago, I was more than a little nervous about who would greet me there. We had seen him last in August when he graduated from basic training. As we hugged goodbye at the end of that way too short visit, he was quiet,and I knew he was more than a little worried.  His mind was full of unknowns–roommates he barely knew, classes that hadn’t started, and a mark on the football field that he hadn’t quite made yet.

As Winter Break finally arrived, I got a big hug and an even bigger smile at the airport, but I kept waiting to see the changes. He still played hide and seek with his little sister. He still decorated gingerbread men in gory depictions of decapitated mayhem. He watched football with his dad, and to my disappointment (and secret delight), he still left his room a disorganized array of dirty clothes and sweaty socks.

There was no anger, no resentment of the civilian life he left behind. There was no hint of desperation in his conversations about life at West Point. I saw no sadness, when the time to return drew closer. In fact, he slipped a few times, and called it “going home”.

For 16 days I’ve been waiting to see the “change”. I was even planning my post to say that those other moms were wrong, but then, as I watched him go through security, I saw it. There before me, was a young man full of self-confidence…and he had been with me since he walked off that plane more than two weeks ago.

He was there at the theater when he asked a high school acquaintance working the ticket booth if we could have a military discount. He was there at restaurants when he thanked the waitress and servers for doing a good job. He was there at Target when, two days before Christmas, he asked a scattered employee to help us find the one installment of the Harry Potter movies that we hadn’t seen together.

And finally, there he was with a smile and a wave from the other end of the security line.  My wonderful, confident son, who turned to head back to the place he calls home. West Point has turned my boy into a man, and I couldn’t be happier.

Keep your children close, and love them long,

Stiletto Momma