At first, I found my solace in Penelope. It was May, and I was in my garden planting radishes when I learned that my husband would be leaving our home in two months and ten days, headed to Iraq to serve as a truck driver in an Army infantry unit. He would be almost seven thousand miles away. In my state of astonishment, I imagined it as a trip through time, too: he would be “over there,” engaged in a medieval battle in camouflage and chain mail. I would be sitting on a cliff somewhere north of Dublin, my brown wool skirt billowing in the wind, listening for the echo of my husband's voice in the spray off the ocean's cold waves, knitting socks for our three sons.
Conflicted, in denial, mixed up, I turned to the Greeks.
Penelope is a worthy paragon. Described as “constant” by Homer more than a dozen times in The Odyssey, she is a symbol of marital fidelity; according to Margaret Atwood in The Penelopiad, a retelling of the Greek myth, Penelope is high priestess of the goddess cult of women left behind. Her husband was away for twenty years, some of it fighting in the Trojan Wars (perhaps nobler than our modern wars because they were started over the love of a woman), much more of it variously wandering the Mediterranean and being held love-hostage of the demigoddess Calypso. Homer calls Odysseus “wise but unlucky”; a lesser man, similarly adventurous, might be called “a rolling stone.”
There are, says Peter V. Jones in his introduction to the Penguin Classics revised version of The Odyssey, two possible Homeric interpretations of Odysseus: as the loyal hero-husband, whose only goal is to return home; or as a mean, selfish, deceitful husband. I imagine my husband telling me when taking leave that I should remarry when my toddler grows a beard. I narrow my eyes in suspicion. I hum to myself, “All he left us was alo-oh-oh-one.”
It is hard to say which interpretation Penelope herself might have settled on. It is equally challenging to find a modern Army wife who will admit on record to being an “antihero.” And next to Penelope or any one of millions of war wives throughout history and our Western literary canon, the modern Army wife has it made. Blessed with tours of duty as little as five or six months, and no more than fifteen months, and given the possibility of near-daily communication with our loved ones, how can we take a place in the time-honored tradition of epistolary romances, the trope of the waiting wife, the indefinite and virtuous fealty of so many women who came before us? Is “away at war” even, really, away, when fathers can still give good tongue-lashings via webcam and watch on Hulu the same TV shows that their wives watch at home? Today, members of the Army can tweet, post on Facebook and Flickr, and blog. When I consider the technology of “away” in today's world, I wonder if the Army wife's relationship with her husband is all that different from that of the wife whose husband works long hours in a tall office building while she comments on his Facebook posts with loving irony.
But when I read the waiting-wife literature of 2009, I find a distinct lack of irony. What I do find is a twelve-step program. Army wife Melissa Seligman suggests in a New York Times essay that today's constant communication is the very enemy of constancy. She writes of her contact with her husband, “I wanted to be delighted, to drop everything when the instant messenger paged me, when he gave up badly needed sleep to be with us. But sometimes I couldn't help being annoyed at the interference. I needed unbroken routines in order to be both a mother and father to my children. At times, I wished he wouldn't call.” Her book about her husband's second tour of duty is filled with references to the buzzing of her computer, the signal that her husband was available on instant messenger. Her book, and the video podcasts she creates with another Army wife, are filled with the patois of loss: they must go through anger, denial, bargaining, acceptance.
As I discover that my husband's mobilization has been delayed, and delayed again, I settle satisfyingly into the framework of denial. His departure date is always—and as I write, still—two months away, and this reinforces the construct of mythology, time travel, chimera, literary whim. I read that Homer added seven years onto Odysseus's captivity by Calypso solely to give his son Telemachus time to grow up and create the necessary conflict. I don't know whether to drolly shake my head—funny Homer, you gave Penelope an extra seven years of solitude to make your math work out right!—or to hate him.
Both Seligman and Atwood have diagnosed the waiting wife as an angry woman. Seligman's feelings toward her husband swing from heroic to antiheroic in one page, and it is the wily Odysseus I read about in her words. “I feel betrayed and abandoned,” she writes. “I feel tricked, cheated. I am overwhelmed and short of breath.” Atwood is funnier, but no less biting: her Penelope seethes toward Helen and lets the twelve slaughtered maids voice her anger toward Odysseus, who still cannot stay at home, even in Hades, and keeps heading toward the River Lethe to be born again, leaving Penelope to peek in on him in séances.
Are we modern and ancient spouses really so much alike? When I compare myself and other wives of Army and Marine reservists and Oregon National Guard soldiers to Penelope and the long-suffering and stoic wives of wars past, I am ashamed to admit to any hardship. Here, life goes on much as it does for anyone whose partner is occasionally or permanently distant. I fail to see in myself the oft-weeping Penelope. I look at the painting of her by Joseph Wright of Derby, unraveling her web, and I see even less recognition. This woman has a depth, a disconsolance, a distance, I have never known and never could know.
I have known sadness only in the dailiness of life, the bickerings brought on by unwashed dishes and ill-spent money; the more desperate arguments over dire misunderstandings and disparities in the functionality of our extended families. We are here in the trenches of ordinary civilian marriage. He is here, he is so very much here, and I alternate between embracing his closeness and wishing he were already away, taking with him the anticipation and dread and fear.
Penelope gets it all: anticipation, dread, and terror, two decades' worth. Penelope had but this: the songs of traveling minstrels, some that gave her hope and most that caused her maids to whisk her up to her room where she could weep, despairing, until bright-eyed Athene closed her eyes in sweet sleep. Penelope's husband had set upon her a vexing bargain: that she would remarry when she saw a beard on the chin of Telemachus, who was only an infant when Odysseus set sail. The soothsayer Halitherses had foretold it would be twenty years before Odysseus would return. Which would come first? Surely it would not take a diviner of signs to understand that the beard may come before the conquering hero.
In twenty years, Penelope raised a headstrong son who loved his mother but desperately doubted her. (“My mother certainly says I am Odysseus's son; but for myself, I cannot tell,” he confides to Athene, when the goddess is disguised as his father's friend Mentes.) He is impatient, incautious, worried only about instigating his mother's tears. It takes the extremity of her cunning to devise the ruse to put off her insolent suitors by weaving a shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes, undoing the stitches every night after the suitors have tired of watching her needlework, having promised she would choose one of them to marry only when the shroud had been completed.
In twenty years, Penelope never has the favor of direct messages from the gods and has lost all of her in-laws through death, retirement, or marriage. When her deception is discovered by her suitors, she learns that her only son has gone off on a fool's errand, in search of news of Odysseus. She has nothing but her loom, her famous constancy, and her husband's things to keep her grief from overcoming her.
In place of a dozen handmaidens, I have sisters and friends; instead of wraiths sent by goddesses (who, even in Penelope's dreams, will not tell her plainly that Odysseus is alive, equivocating instead), I have e-mail, webcams, Google chat. I read about Seligman's middle-of-the-night conversations with her husband and imagine that my husband and I might be even closer half a world apart, favored by the gods of fiber optics with a spectrum of communication media. Who needs a god masquerading as my sister in my dreams when I can retweet my husband's status updates in real time? And scar or no scar, I'll surely be able to recognize my husband upon his return, unlike Odysseus's wife, who had to resort to secrets and clever tests to identify him. I'll have dozens of photos from his Facebook album to click through at my leisure.
I write about Seligman on my blog, and she writes to me, telling me that she turns to James Joyce's Molly Bloom as a role model, not Penelope. “The choice to stay, struggle and all, rather than the sense of duty, is the propelling altruistic virtue, in my opinion,” she writes. But instead of the romance of the waiting war wife, all she finds in her own life is reality. “Only bombs, charred bodies, and PTSD loomed over our relationship,” she says, and her children, Telemachus-like, are “impatient angry questioning blaming their mothers.”
I cannot identify with Homer's Penelope for other reasons—too weepy, too suspicious, too wishy-washy—nor can I relate to Atwood's catty, jealous, profane wife. Modern soldiers are not away, I decide, idly plotting a series of husband-wife video podcasts, wondering, when I see a story in the local paper about soldiers running a leg of the Hood-to-Coast relay via satellite from Iraq, if I can find him a team before he leaves.
Perhaps I am sodden with denial. But then I remember Tennyson. I forgive him for calling Penelope the “aged wife” and characterizing Ithaca as “barren,” for Tennyson's rhythms drop heavily into my lilting, twittering conscience. “Much have I seen and known,” his Odysseus says, “ and drunk delight of battle with my peers, / Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy. / I am a part of all that I have met.”
And with a thud, it hits me that it is not the number of miles or hours it takes to fly home, or the milliseconds' delay in our voices as they reach each other, nearly seven thousand miles apart. It is what my husband will drink, how he will delight of battle and thunder and sunshine, death and sailing beyond the sunset. It is who he will wake up next to, eat with, the souls he will have toiled and wrought and thought with. It is far, so far that I cannot possibly see, I cannot bathe in the Middle Eastern stars, cannot strive, seek, find. This distance is what I must yield to soon, in a minute or a month or a century: that he will be gone—away, over there—and I will be here.
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