FORT POLK, La. " Until I was 10 years old, my father was active duty in the Army; stationed at Fort Polk since I was 4 years old, he had reached the paygrade of E-8 and was a first sergeant. I was one of the lucky (or unlucky) few “Army brats” who hadn’t moved all over the country. I was born near Fort Belvoir, Va.; we were stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash., when I was almost 3 and moved to Fort Polk a year later.

And there we stayed as my father retired and began a second and then third career in the civilian world.

When I was a baby, my father was stationed in Korea for months, leaving my mother with a toddler who had an illogical desire to put peanut butter in the VCR, and a stepson. I began to forget what my dad looked like, and for me, every man in Army fatigues was “daddy.” My mother sent him cassette tapes every once in a while of me and my first attempts to speak. I couldn’t say, “I love you”; it came out “a ha hoo,” but I’m pretty sure he knew what I meant. He says, now, that being away from my mother and me during my fleeting babyhood and toddlerhood was one of the hardest things he ever had to do. He says he cried listening to those recordings.

When he came back, I was 3 years old. I have a vague memory of driving with my mother to the airport when he finally returned home. I remember being unbearably excited. Daddy was home!

Though he’d been gone as I learned to speak, I knew daddy.

I performed cartwheels while we waited, though when we finally reunited, when he walked up to us, I think I may have had a moment of hesitation. I’m not sure I remembered his face; he left for Korea when I was so young, so how could I have? What also eludes my memory, though, is any awkwardness or any fear. As an adult, I remember only love, only contentment that my fractured family was now complete.

Afterwards, as I grew, my father was always available. When I joined a softball team, he played catch with me outside in the evening. We went out for ice cream. He helped me with science projects. He was, in all ways, the best and most involved of fathers.

All of this happened before the Gulf War, before 9/11 and the mass deployments that followed.

Now, more Families than ever (in my generation, at least) are separated as fathers and mothers go overseas and babies, toddlers and children clutch “daddy dolls” " dolls with inserts for daddy’s picture " and see their fathers and mothers only through pictures on the computer.

I see moms with kids at the post office mailing care packages with crayon drawings covering the priority boxes and I smile. I’m happy for the deployed parent who made the heartbreaking choice to serve our country and leave Family behind for a while, who gets these packages and is given an opportunity, however far away, to participate in a child’s growth; I’m happy for the child or children, who, through the dolls and pictures and packages, are able and encouraged to maintain a binding tie with their mommy or daddy.

When the missing parent returns, more often than not I am confident that, as for me, that Soldier in the fatigues returning home will be daddy or mommy, undeniably. Many softballs will be caught; many ice cream cones will be eaten, and the ties that bind will be unbreakable and blessed, forever.

Page last updated Mon August 1st, 2011 at 00:00