It had been a long year.
More or less our first year of marriage had been spent apart and all those usual ‘firsts’ like moving into our first home together or going for a candlelight meal for our first wedding anniversary were gone.
We made the best out of the situation, as any military couple must, talked as often as we could on messenger and when the signal was good, we got to talk on Skype. The little things that we take for granted in a relationship such as being able to see your loved one and hear their voice become precious to you.
Most of the time though, I hadn’t really thought about how difficult things were. I’d spent most of the year working 12/13 hour days to try and better my lot in Germany. I really didn’t want people to think I was just another foreigner that had married an American soldier for money and a green card. More importantly, I wanted him to be proud of me and everything I’d built for us when he came home.
As the reunion date drew closer and changed on a weekly basis with each new piece of gossip or information from the chain of command, I took to carrying a tape with me everywhere I went. On it were the various possible return dates and I’d mark off a block every day on each countdown. Some wives find that makes them think about everything much more but for me, it was satisfying seeing the empty blocks getting less and the marked blocks becoming more numerous. It gave me something to focus on and say ‘look how far we’ve come’.
About a week before reunion, I cleaned the house repeatedly, made sure all his clothes were washed and the cupboards filled with food other than the ramen I’d been living off. I took to eating microwavable soups with disposable utensils and MREs (‘Meals Ready To Eat’ – Army rations in other words) so that I wouldn’t dirty anything even though I’d end up cleaning it again anyway.
I stopped sleeping and all the wives clung together, resolving not to let ourselves be alone. We decorated the barracks for the single soldiers, organised home-made hot meals for them and made welcome home banners. We arranged plastic cups in fence holes to spell out ‘Welcome Home’ and worried about what we would wear to the reunion, if our marriages would still work, if our husbands would like who we’d become during the year without them and if we’d still love our men for who they were now.
The more I thought about things, the more I wanted to create some kind of a ritual to mark this return from deployment to married life. Something for us both that would mark the change in our roles. The only question was how.
In the end, my inspiration came from the famous Tjängvide picture stone depicting Odin on Sleipnir and a woman/Valkyrie offering him a horn. In her book, ‘Roles of the Northern Goddess’, Hilda Ellis Davidson indicates that there are at least twelve surviving stones that depict a woman holding up a horn to a warrior on horseback. Although Davidson interprets this image as being the welcome of a dead warrior by a supernatural female figure, the act of a female offering a horn or a cup to a warrior was not limited to the dead. The best known example of a woman offering a horn or cup to a warrior is undoubtedly that of Wealtheow offering first to her husband and then to the assembled warriors in Beowulf. There were parallels between how people saw the world of the dead and how they experienced the world of the living. The hall and feasting culture were of vast importance at that time in society and so the land of the dead was visualised in terms of halls and feasts. Valhalla was a great hall with great feasting where all the chosen warriors would go. So if there is the concept of a female welcoming a slain warrior ‘home’ to Valhalla, would it not be conceivable then that living warriors were welcomed home in a similar fashion?
It was along these lines that I planned my ritual.
I had wanted to offer my husband the horn of mead before he stepped over the threshold but in reality I was unable to do this. There is a three day alcohol restriction on soldiers just returning from deployment in order to curb the number of alcohol related offenses and suicides among newly-returned soldiers. And so I just took the time to enjoy hugging him, helping him to wash off the desert and feeding him a home-made shepherd’s pie.
On the day when restriction was lifted, he left the house as a symbolic gesture and I prepared the horn and the mead. When he came back, I stood before him and offered him the horn and struggled to speak the words I’d written:
‘Long were you gone and far did you roam, I stand at this threshold and welcome you home.
A horn of mead, a blessed brew, a warrior’s welcome I offer to you.
The time you were gone, was dark and grey, I thought the clouds were here to stay.
But safe you are back, my heart is renewed.
As I look to the future and happy days with you’
My husband took the horn and said his own impromptu piece about how he was glad to be back home with me and then he drank.
Looking back, the words I wrote were almost tacky but it was a very simple and emotional ritual that helped to put that mental divider between the ‘then’ time of deployment and the ‘now’ time of living together again. Of course it doesn’t solve everything or head off any issues. Deployment changes people both down range and at home, in some ways you have to get to know your partner again and start your relationship anew. This ritual not only welcomes your husband home but in a way, also states your intent to stay together and work through come what may. It reminds you of the love that sustained you through the deployment and talks of hope for the future.
Cat Heath 2009