Last week, I shared how deployments affect a military family’s concept of time. We organize years into periods of sea duty or moves, and these become our point-of-references. For instance, it wasn’t “the year 2000,” but rather, “the year of your first deployment.”

It’s a bit of an occupational hazard, if only because banks, insurance companies and the like don’t also tell time this way. They deal with actual years. And no one has patience when you’re counting moves to figure out when you first opened your account. (Every once in a while, though, you come across a provider who gets it, like Ford’s orthodontist who assured him that his braces will be off “by the time your dad comes home.”)

To deal with this, military families have developed clever ways to mark time, from mentally taking note of trash days to making paper chains or keeping M&Ms in a jar. Last week, I emphasized why this is important: my older brother once lost track of whether our Navy dad was home or away. He assumed Dad was in the bathroom, because the door was closed, when in fact Dad had been on the ship for a while.

I’ve spent my own time as a military wife eagerly marking time. When the kids were young, this sometimes amounted to reminding my husband how many diaper changes or birthday parties he had missed. I tallied hurricane evacuations I completed on my own, bouts of pneumonia and hours of homework help. You know, the fun stuff.

For the most part, the kids were active participants in the (less snarky) countdowns. I remember Ford, with his big brown eyes and tousled hair, counting M&Ms and Cheerioes. I remember Owen, always short on words but big on cheerfulness, placing thumb tacks on a map to mark the places Dustin had visited on his deployment. (In later years, this ritual was decidedly less interesting as most of the thumb tacks were in the waters of the Persian Gulf, not dotting ports in the Mediterranean as they had before.) And I remember little Lindell, with his bowl haircut and unrestrained enthusiasm, anticipating each dinner as we marked Dustin’s longest deployment with a year of weekly guests to fill his empty seat at the dining room table.

As with most crafts or activities back then, the kids were always clamoring to help. If I brought out construction paper, they fought over who gets to use the scissors first. If I brought out a bag of M&Ms, they wanted to fill the jar and help make cookies after. And if I unrolled a map, their little hands rushed to “help” me hang it in just the right spot.

Today the boys are 16, 14 and 10. Construction paper does not have the same effect. M&Ms do, but usually in the way of, “Hey, Mom, can I have some of those?” And now we are counting down to a different kind of reward: the end of Dustin’s military service.

About a week ago, I realized Dustin comes home for the last time in 60 days. I leaped from the sofa and announced, “We need to make a paper chain!”

No one else jumped.

“That seems like a lot of work,” Ford said as I hauled out the craft supplies.

When I started cutting strips of paper, Owen said, “I think you’re making the time seem longer. That’s going to be a really long paper chain.”

Not even my youngest got up from his spot on the living room floor.

My how times have changed.

As I made the chain, I told the boys stories about when they were younger. They were mildly interested. But I got the biggest response only when I said aloud that I might hang the paper chain from the dining room chandelier.

“No, Mom, no,” they said. “You mean we’ll have to eat with that thing hanging over our heads for 60 days?”

I was momentarily elated when they recognized my crafty mood and suggested cookies. But what they meant was, “Some cookies would be great to eat,” not, “Can I stir the dough and break the eggs?”

I decided to hang the paper chain in a place where no one could miss it: draped across the bookshelf over the television. As I hung it, voices behind me said, “Mom, move. … Mom, you’re in the way. … Mom, we can’t see.”

In all of my countdowns, I can’t seem to recall when exactly the boys grew up.

But each night, I’ve noticed how they ask if we’ve removed a paper link, and I’ve smiled to myself when they count how many are left.

No, they didn’t make the craft, but they are still counting with me.

And someday soon, spring 2017 will be better known as “the time when Dad retired.”

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