Forget the trips to Monterey, the afternoons at the theater and the household of relatives for Christmas -- Denise Molina's life is on hold.
The 21-year-old mother refuses to make any memories until her husband returns from his seven-month tour with the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq.
"It wouldn't be right for me to have this fun with him out there," she explained, as their 3-year-old son Jonathan grabbed photos of his father from the kitchen table. "To me, that's family time."
In September, her family time ended. After weeks of training at Camp Pendleton, Cpl. Richard Andrew Molina (he goes by Andrew) flew to Al Asad, a city west of Baghdad and inside the Al Anbar province of Iraq, to begin his tour.
While the 22-year-old Marine calls his wife on her cell phone nearly every morning, he remains hushed about his day-to-day actions because of security concerns for his unit. All she knows is that he rides on transport missions in case the Marine Corps' trucks break down. If they do, he's the one who steps out, at the risk of tripping a land mine or catching a sniper's eye, to make repairs.
As Molina risks his life every day in Iraq, his wife and son are here, waiting for their family unit's mission -- living life -- to resume.
Molina, a Merced resident, has made it her full-time job to support her husband and raise their child. She quit her position at a local furniture store and has moved back into her parents' house for both the emotional and financial support.
Molina and thousands of other husbands and wives found themselves leading the life of a single parent when their other half went off to war. For now, a wife no longer has a husband. A son doesn't have a father.
The Molinas' family scrapbook isn't the only one filled with empty pages or pictures missing loved ones because of a war. Long before Penelope waited for Ulysses to come home from the Trojan War, men have left their villages in packs to fight with neighboring tribes for land, food and water. Thousands of years later -- though the stakes today may be religion and oil -- not much has changed.
While history books focus on the glorious battles, the dead soldiers and the victors' conquest, they often ignore the families who struggle to continue their lives while a member fights for their security.
As a Marine family support organization notes, "Being married to a Marine is said to be the toughest job in the Corps."
War has grown more complicated, even for those left at home.
No more do families rush to the mailbox to check for a handwritten letter from a son, daughter, husband or wife stealing a few minutes to scribble their worries, hopes and dreams. This is war in a 24-hour information age, with cell phones and text messages, YouTube and e-mail.
Now the ones left behind keep their cell phone on and handy in case there's a phone call. They keep their computer running in case there's an e-mail. And they watch television, hoping to catch a glimpse of their son, daughter, husband or wife.
This war is hell on some families.
After a few days without a phone call, Molina will lie awake in bed, often till 2 a.m. While her son sleeps next to her, she imagines the worst-case scenarios. What if Andrew were injured? Or killed? Will there be a telephone call the next morning from him, or will there be a knock at the door? She never knows.
Researchers are studying these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, watched nearly in real time, to see how they're affecting the youngest generation. Some results are already known because, though these wars boast technological marvels of communication, they still separate families.