Summer, once known as a time of outdoor activities and vacations, is now known as PCS season, that dreaded time of year when the Army gives and the Army taketh away. Short for “Permanent Change of Station,” you can rest assured that is is never “Permanent.” Landing somewhere new, making friends, then re-learning to say goodbye is a normal side-effect of Army life. In May, we lost our next-door neighbors to PCS season when they moved to their next duty station.
This means I have a barbecue sauce problem.
Let me explain.
On the night before my neighbors left, we participated in a time-honored moving tradition: The Emptying of the Refrigerator. I was welcomed over to their now-empty house to go shopping in their fridge, and gladly took their frozen goods, including two packs of the good organic hotdogs, bags of shredded cheese, and some cream cheese. My friend encouraged me to also take her Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ sauce. “It’s so good!” she said. “Really, it’s the best.”
But my arms were full and I was starting to feel a little bit greedy, so I said no.
Also, I was sad to see my friends go. I hated being in their empty house, already echoing with their absence. They had become family, and I hated to lose them.
It started the day we moved in. It was just me, my mom, and the two kids. I had left our home in Louisiana at the last minute, hoping to beat our household goods to Tennessee so they wouldn’t go into storage. Mom met me on the way, flying into an airport on our path to be my road trip partner. My two year old was confused. My youngest, three weeks old, had terrible diaper rash from sitting in the car for two days. We were in a new town, cranky, exhausted, emotional, sitting in a sea of boxes.
A knock on the door changed everything. My neighbor brought us a casserole, that time-honored Army wife tradition and staple — but despite a couple years of Army marriage under my belt, I had never had a casserole delivery. We thanked her profusely, said the oh-you-didn’t-have-tos. We closed the door, and Mom and I looked at each other in amazement. After experiencing the vulgarity of packers, movers, truck drivers, changed plans and general weariness, I think a free act of kindness genuinely surprised us. It would not be the last time that an act of kindness from my neighbor rendered me speechless.
We had girls a couple months in age apart and so that late summer and fall we spent many mornings and afternoons playing in our front yards. When the holidays came and both our families stayed in the neighborhood, we spent Christmas evening together, drinking sweet wine and sharing memories. It is still ranks as one of the best Christmases ever.
Later, I found myself at the center of an emotional disaster zone. I wasn’t working and decided to have shoulder surgery to fix an old injury. The pain and recovery were much harder than I expected and turned my post-baby blues in to a full fledged crisis. I knew something was wrong and didn’t know how to ask for help. I felt like I was at the bottom of a well, screaming, but that no one could hear me.
After a particularly difficult episode, my neighbor sat me down, demanding to know what was going on. I was embarrassed. I made excuses. I apologized. I waved it off, said it was no big deal. She would have none of it. A former nurse, she pointed out that the hormonal turmoil of ending breastfeeding and the physical pain of the surgery surely had something to do with how I was handling the depression — a link so obvious in hindsight but one no other professional had made. It was a lightbulb moment; I had been so hard on myself for not being resilient, sucking it up and moving past my depression. I finally was able to cut myself some slack. My neighbor had lowered me a rope that let me crawl out of the well, a lifeline. And I did, slowly.
Walking quickly the short distance back to my house, my arms filled with frozen goodies, I was afraid of what would happen when my neighbors left. It’s been a long time since I needed a lifeline, but I know how easily I fell down the well once before. Would I remember to ask for help when I needed it? Would I remember to pay it forward, to offer a lifeline to someone else?
Heroes are in abundant supply in our military community, even in our military spouse community. Heroic spouses work hard and stand at the ready to make sure military families aren’t forgotten in the halls of power. But the small, daily gestures — casseroles, holiday nights over sweet wine, quiet conversations between neighbors, whispered so as not to wake sleeping little ones — those are the heroic measures that count, that truly make a difference.
These small, daily gestures have always been the hardest ones for me. In the hectic everyday, I get overwhelmed with the details — what if I’m annoying someone? What if they don’t want to be bothered by me bringing them a casserole — or, more likely in my circumstances, Chinese take-out? What I learned from my friend is that personal outreach to a friend or loved one is worth its weight in gold. With out it, I’m not sure if I would have made my way out of the well. I hope I can remember that, and not get in my own way to help someone else.
Now I frequently end up in the barbecue sauce aisle at the grocery store, thinking about my neighbor and that Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ Sauce. And I pick up a bottle. The problem is I always forget that I also had this great idea the LAST time I went shopping, and the time before that, and the time before that.
I’m not complaining about my barbecue overabundance — turns out it is a really tasty sauce. I’ve learned how to make ribs in the slow cooker (the secret is to finish them in the oven), and the kids now prefer BBQ sauce to ketchup with their chicken nuggets. But when I look at my pantry and see my four bottles of barbecue sauce (plus one in the fridge), I have to laugh. If I ever forget to ask for help, hopefully a glance in the pantry will be a gentle reminder that (1) I should make shopping lists more often, and (2) there are everyday heroes in our lives, willing to cast a lifeline when you might need one. And they have really great taste in barbecue sauce.
Josie Beets is an attorney, military spouse, and mom. Follow her on Twitter @JosieBeets.