Last week I teamed up with Home Depot and Operation Homefront of Oregon with a bundle of Christmas goodies and made a suprise visit to a local military family just to say “thanks for all you do” as part of The Home Depot Foundation’s “Celebration of Service.” I was pretty excited because I got to make my first Christmas cookies of the season. I picked an old-fashioned Ginger Molasses recipe I got from a dear friend and heaped spoonfuls of ginger into the batter from a glass jar my husband brought back from the Middle East. I couldn’t think of anyone more deserving – or more appreciative – of the secret ingredient. With my house full of warm ginger, I packed the cookies into the basket from Home Depot which included a corner tree, turquiose applique tree skirt, a huge box of beautiful turquoise Martha Stewart ornaments, and a star for the finishing touch.
Staff Sgt. Jimmy McEwing greeted us at the door. We shared that familiar military moment as we discussed his hometown and one of my old Navy brat haunts, Jacksonville, Florida. His wife Mary was from Texas, and seemed to flawlessly manage the three year-old, two year-old and precious 5 month-old children who wanted desperately to see what kinds of shiny objects we were hauling in the door. Like many military families, the age difference between child one and two is representative of time spent apart. We set up a corner Christmas tree in three quick snaps and let the boys decorate the limbs with ornaments, unintentionally sprinkling glitter all over Mary’s floors while the Operation Homefront representative, Kari McClellan, seized the opportunity to snap up the baby. I stood back to take a picture or two and laughed, thinking how that Christmastime is full of mess-making opportunities happily legitimized as a chance to get closer to another human. My kitchen floor and the flour still on my kids’ faces was further evidence of that sentiment.
I knew from the short bio I recieved that Jimmy had been to Iraq twice and was Army Infantry, so I was curious to hear how this active duty military family made it into my little hometown of Vancouver, Washington. We don’t have much of a military presence here and the Army installation we do have consists of a shopette, historical housing turned office-space, and a military barber.
What I heard made me swoon like the baby in Kari’s arms: instead of telling me how he got here, to Vancouver, he took my question to mean how he got here, to this stage in his life. And Jimmy proceeded to tell me a love story.
In 2004 Jimmy joined the Army and by 2005 he was deployed to Iraq. The Team Leader of Operation Homefront sent care packages to his unit and appreciating the gesture, he sent a thankyou note to the creator of the box he had. Her name was Mary. It would turn out to be the only thankyou card she recieved from all those boxes. As he told the next part of the story, I looked across the table and Mary was staring at Jimmy wide-eyed, as if she didn’t know what came next. They corresponded and got to know each other through letters, falling in love slowly and deeply. The story unfolded like a vintage wartime romance, and though I knew it wasn’t true I imagined letters floating back and forth across the ocean in tiny bottles, each recipient waiting impatiently for the waves to bring the next message across. On his post-deployment leave Jimmy came straight home to Mary. Her first military “homecoming” was the first moment she laid eyes on her future husband. The first moment she touched him. ”I had to make him go see his mother,” Mary laughed, remembering the time they spent together. In 2007 they married, and Jimmy said that when he deployed for another tour to Iraq he left behind not only a new wife, but a beautiful 3 month-old son. This time when I looked across the table at Mary, she seemed strong and assured. Jimmy was looking at her, too.
Jimmy and Mary and their three children eventually landed in the Northwest after a recruiting position opened up, and Jimmy’s thankful heart is now carrying him much farther than that first care package in the desert: he’s now studying psychology and has eventually has plans to get his associate’s degree in theology. We gathered up our things and as much of the glitter as possible, and as I headed out the door I realized I was the one that had received the suprise gift of their story that evening. When I explained the cookies were made from ginger my husband had brought back from his last deployment, Jimmy smiled. “I bet they’re good and strong. I like them strong,” he remarked.
I agree, Jimmy. That’s how I like them, too.-