In Welcome Aboard: A Service Manual for the Naval Officer’s Wife, I learned from Ms. Florence Ridgely Johnson how paying someone “A Visit” is different than a “Call”, the proper attire for a Dinner Party versus a Buffet Supper, how to introduce two people without saying “I should like to present” (because that sounds stuffy), and you will “rarely find alcohol served in [military] people’s homes until after the working day.” Mind you, this book was published in 1951, certainly now enjoyed more as a comparison to how times have changed. I wasn’t required to wear white gloves to our first Spouse’s Club meeting, I have no idea how to present full tea service but I make a mean mint julep at 1pm, and I frequently bring up topics that would make Mrs. Johnson slap me with her tea glove. But you’ve got to give this woman credit: she was educating a population that was hit broadside with more acronyms and traditions than they knew what to do with. At the time, she gave women a guidepost on what life would be like, what was “in” and what was “out”, and what was deemed acceptable behavior.
Now, no one likes being told what-not-to-do. And I’m not about to break this down into whether seersucker is appropriate after Labor Day, if you should pair those shoes with that handbag, or if you should’ve had eight cocktails at your last squadron event. Those rules are your business to know based on your region, your fashion sense, and the culture of your squadron. But my biggest lesson in what-not-to-do meant thinking I could handle taking on the responsibilities and mental stress of being a military wife without any support.
I wasn’t handed a guidebook published by the Naval Institute when I married my husband. I learned in the trenches. Following the first Spouse’s Club meeting I attended, I promptly crawled into my car and bawled my eyes out before driving home. Were these women awful? No. Was the food terrible? No. Did they fail to introduce me and welcome me? No. Several of the women I met that night remain my dearest friends. Was it completely overwhelming? Yes. Even having come from a job in which I worked on a military base and knew how the system worked, I was dumbfounded at the social aspect. I knew my husband flew a plane, it was big and grey. But these women were experts. They knew what their husbands did every day, upcoming tests, requirements, detachments and the reasons for flight cancellations. They knew the jargon, they knew Tri-Care, they knew where to get your car fixed, teeth fixed, hair fixed, nails fixed and which Mother’s Day Out program to join, should we ever have children and oh, are you thinking of having children any time soon?
If it were a first date, I wouldn’t have returned calls for the second date. And I had almost convinced myself that I could survive on my own, relying upon neighbors and work associates for a social life. But I couldn’t. Deployment was imminent and if you haven’t lived it, you don’t get it. So I went to lunch bunch. Then book club. Then another meeting. Gradually, I realized that these women had developed their social skills based on necessity. We are stationed together for three-ish years, so we’d best get to know one another quickly, right? And since our lives can become engulfed by our husband’s careers, we’d best understand it, go to the pre-deployment meetings, ask questions, and know the terminology. (I have since learned my second language: Military Wife, and have become fluent in insurance, health care, Standard-Vs-Prime, customs forms for care packages, regional dining, children’s entertainment, and VA loans.) And since we’re going through a deployment together, we’re going to see each other at our potential worst and best, and we’re all okay with that.
What I hope I’ve relayed is that more important than white gloves, tea services, calling cards, and candlelight suppers is knowing that your circumstances as a military wife, any branch or rank, are unique. They have unique demands that occasionally require other people to help you work through them. That may be a Spouse’s club, FRG, Ombudsman or Fleet and Family, or a support group you start on your own. Thinking that there aren’t people who understand you or can help you is most certainly what-not-to-do.
Anne Booher is a proud Navy wife of six years, mother to a beautiful young lady, graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a highly opinionated Southern woman whose momma told her she was not ‘easily amused,’ so she took that out of her bio.
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