by Andria Williams
One of the early memories Abigal Calkin recalls in her memoir, The Soul of My Soldier: Reflections of a Military Wife, takes place when she is four years old and relatives suddenly come to stay at their home: her second cousin, Roddy, only three, and his mother, Anne, just twenty, her husband killed very recently in action in WWII. Calkin’s Quaker family has provided respite for many extended members in need, sometimes for years, but this visit sticks out for young Abigail because it is fun. She’s delighted to have someone her own age in the house, and he is too little to be aware of the gravity of the situation. So they pass the time playing games and bickering over a stuffed toy. She won’t see Roddy again for decades, but her life has been informed by this early and very immediate brush with war and loss. (Interestingly, Roddy’s son goes on to become chief curator at Arlington National Cemetery, giving Calkin a tour of the grounds, which includes a marble chapel for special funerals and the below-ground apartments where the Tomb Sentinels live during their tours of duty there.)
Anecdotes and observations like this one fill the pages of The Soul of My Soldier. Not a traditional memoir, it’s more a rumination on the human soul in the path of large-scale violence. Calkin uses poetry, brief essays, and even letters (such as one she wrote to President Obama in protest of the Surge) to explore themes of violence and recovery — and yes, those are heavy themes, but Calkin’s humor, intelligent powers of observation, and bemused, patient love for her husband–as well as her simultaneous awe and pride in the survival of their 40-plus-year marriage–keeps the reading lively, and far more enjoyable than a summary of its themes would suggest.
There are several “opposites attract” milspouse memoirs out there, such as Alison Buckholtz’s Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War and Lily Burana’s rollicking I Love a Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love, War, and Other Battles, which tells of the author’s path from self-described purple-haired punk aficionado to Army wife. (Burana leads “New Burlesque” classes for military spouses, originally, I believe, tailored for those coming to the end of a deployment; maybe I’ll be brave enough to go try one someday and write about the experience in an arch, campy, longform style. Then again, I’m terrified of the local YMCA Zumba class with its innocently gyrating gray panthers, so…)
What I am trying to say here is that while the “I-never-imagined-I’d-marry-a-military-man” trope is not uncommon, these memoirs still entertain me, perhaps because my own would probably play out the same way, and also because only the best of these, by talented writers, tend to rise to the top. Calkin is an artist and poet long before she–at seven months pregnant! and in a dissolving marriage–meets Robert, who falls for her immediately. She knows he served 22 months, two consecutive tours, in Vietnam, but she can reconcile that with her Quaker beliefs because he is out now and opposes that war. What she doesn’t know is that he will re-enlist in the Reserves just a few years later–partly because he wants to buy a new rototiller, and the Reserves will pay him fifty bucks a month–and that he will, even further into the future, deploy to Desert Storm, and she will find herself juggling motherhood, full-time work as a school principal, and management of a spousal support group for over 400 spouses which regularly requires as many as seven hours’ worth of phone calls in the afternoons and evenings.
“I am loving but not always nonjudgmental,” Calkin admits. She writes frankly about her’s and Robert’s differences, sometimes with sadness, sometimes with humor. The specificity of her description makes it easy for the reader to care about Robert. He is athletic, competent, a lapsed Catholic who still crosses himself in church for family events. He’s shocked that she’s writing a book about their relationship. He “holds himself carefully,” she writes in “Opposites,” whereas she–in a line I love!–“hasn’t learned to leave some risks alone.” He once says, “Yes, ma’am” to her after an intimate moment, which makes her laugh in disbelief. Another time, her son writes a paper for school for Mother’s Day: “My mommy takes long showers,” he says, and “My mommy yells at my daddy a lot.”
Robert suffers significant post-traumatic stress from his tours in Vietnam; he has trouble managing anger, he drinks too much on occasion, he is easily startled. “Your cranium created new detours that/ Weren’t meant to become fixed highways,” she writes in “Fixing the Problem.” In “Salt Licks:” “I grow weary of tending my husband’s tears/in buckets and jars around the house.”
In “Take One for Country,” she uses the third person:
His wife holds her breath
as he mulls over desiccated days,
Releases the roil
that changed his innocent
selfless and gilded heart
to an aching, unquenchable grief.
He gave his soul to common good for a country
who does not care.
Calkin follows the long road of violence, or, as Helen Benedict describes it, “the long reach of war.” Her poems and essays touch upon Afghan children, the lost souls of 9/11, bereaved spouses. In “The Wall,” she writes a phrase any military spouse feels all too keenly: “Your name is not there/ and that has made all the difference in my life.” In “Missing Faces”:
when torn hearts ache.
In the more everyday, mil-spouse-life sections of the book, Calkin’s recollections are relatable, touching and humorous. There are phone calls with a fellow spouse at 11: 30 every night while their husbands are away. In “Blinders:” “I haven’t changed the pillowcase:/ it still smells of you.”
There are her wry lines, in the poem “Marriage:”
Life is not perfect
but, amidst open seas, well
The Soul of My Soldier makes its perfect practice the art of informed, intellectual generosity. Generosity between two partners, sure, and also between Calkin’s smart, interrogating mind and the rest of the world, which is found complex and damaged but not destroyed — never destroyed while people still pay attention and while we are still trying to fix our mistakes, make things better and more peaceful than they were.
The final page of the book says, very simply, “Welcome Home.” I love that, in all its meanings. With The Soul of My Soldier, Calkin has welcomed Robert home in a more thoughtful variety of ways than most people get welcomed in their lifetimes. I hope he feels how genuinely he was worth it.
Calkin, Abigail. The Soul of My Soldier: Reflections of a Military Wife. Familius, 2015.