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.
The U.S. Army reports that there are about 94,000 married soldiers of the 151,000 deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 12,000 are single parents.
Experts explain that children past the age of 3 can experience separation anxiety later in life when a parent has been gone for long periods of time.
The Molinas' family unit, at least for the moment, has been broken. Jonathan still remembers his father, and tells strangers that he's stationed in "Your-raq" or "My-raq."
Denise and Andrew, childhood enemies turned high school sweethearts, had spent nearly every day for almost a decade seeing each other. Now, all she has are the photos by her bedside, the phone calls and the precious memories -- the promise and hope that more will follow.
More dinners at John's Incredible Pizza. After a vacation together, her husband will open a barbershop.
She ignores the present and looks to the future, what they'll do when he returns, possibly in March. For now, though, all she wants to do is wait. "I don't care what I'm doing," she said. "It's not the same."
Childhood enemies become lovers
Denise Molina grew up telling her parents that she wanted to marry a green-eyed, fair-skinned boy.
At church one day, the 9-year-old locked eyes with her dream, Richard Andrew Molina, who would soon be her Santa Fe Avenue neighbor.
One problem -- they hated each other.
He was best friends with her older brother, and, like many kids who carry a crush, she went out of her way to make his life miserable. "I slammed the door in his face," she recalled. "It was, 'I hate you, but I love you.'"
Her parents joked that the warring kids would someday get married, a prediction that caused her to groan.
After a few years, Denise and Andrew became friends, sharing secrets and stories. As teenagers, they started dating, though they kept it secret because her father disapproved. She was his only daughter but his baby, she explained.
At some point, someone caught them together in public and mentioned it to her parents. She proudly admitted they were dating, and her parents would have to deal with it. "I wasn't going to lie anymore," she remembered. "I wanted marriage and kids."
After graduating in 2003 from New Life Academy, a private school, 18-year-old Andrew signed up with the Marine Corps as a reserve at the urging of her brother, who had also joined. Denise finished independent study shortly thereafter.
The war in Iraq had just begun, and she admits that him fighting there seemed like a remote possibility. The couple married a month before he went to boot camp, and soon she was pregnant.
As the war dragged on, it became clear he'd be sent to Iraq. It just became a question of when. Uncertainty dominated their lives. He was told he'd be sent, but the date kept changing. First, it was June 2006, then delayed to the fall.
Finally, in June 2007 the Marine Corps activated his unit and he began his deployment three months later.
As her husband packed his bags, she and her son moved back in with her parents in east Merced. Living alone scares her, and she knew she'd need family support with her husband gone.
He's supposed to be in Iraq until March, though it's hard for her to count on that. "When they're out there," she sighed, "you just never know if they'll change it."
'War is hell for everybody'
Overnight, Molina became a single mother, and she joined a platoon of other parents without a spouse managing a family during a war.
Elaine Leeder, a dean of social science at Sonoma State, said families may display a stiff upper lip, but war is still challenging and traumatic. "(They're) having to maintain the sense that everything is all right, when in fact they are living in mortal fear on a day-to-day basis," she explained. "(War) is hell for everybody."
Recognizing the traumas of war, Leeder said the Army produced lifesize cardboard cutouts of dads and moms for children so they could cope with the absence of a flesh-and-blood parent. "It was so bizarre to me that they'd think this would be a stand-in," said Leeder, an expert on war's effects on families.
Children begin to recognize that a parent is missing beginning at the age of 3. The effects depend on the level of communication, and over the last decade the bandwidth for family intimacy has steadily expanded.
Nevertheless, kids who grow up without their parent because of war can become clingy and regress into childlike behavior, she said. Teenagers often feel as if they need to be more responsible and behave like a parent.
"Every generation has a war, and every generation has the casualties," she observed, "and they're not just the ones in the war."
Counseling can help kids deal with the stress of a missing parent and ease some of the impact.
Instantaneous communication, such as video chats over the Internet and text messaging, can ease the stress of a missing parent because there's still frequent contact, she said.
Yet that quick and easy contact comes at a cost. Families hear firsthand updates about the battlefield dangers that their relatives face. "People are thrilled when they find out instantly that their son and daughter are alive, but they're in the battlefield emotionally," Leeder said.
Teri Mackey, a 47-year-old Sonoma State graduate student in Novato, wrote her master's thesis about how digital communication from Iraq affects families.
Talking to a son in the middle of combat, as she did, is terrifying and also a new phenomenon. "You hear noises in the background and bombs, and then the sound goes dead," she said. "Then you have to sit and wonder when they'll call you back."
Close relatives of military members stationed in Iraq tend to stay at home more and stay wired in case they receive communication from their family member, Mackey said.
They'll keep their cell phones on in areas where they should be turned off. Their computer will stay on longer. They check their e-mail more often. They grow isolated, she learned in her 18 months of research.
Some of this she knows first-hand. Her 27-year-old son was deployed for two tours in Iraq with the California National Guard. Her 23-year-old will be heading over with the U.S. Navy soon. She knows she'll be wracked with fear again. "You can't train for this kind of stuff," she explained. "When your kid has the threat of dying every day, you don't get used to that."
A wife and son wait for March
Jonathan Molina can be stubborn, especially when dad is at war.
He'll fill his squirt gun with water even after he's told to put it down. He jumps off the kitchen counter for thrills. Denise will shout, "Jonathan!" and send him to his room. He doesn't stay there for long.
Molina admits that she isn't much of a disciplinarian, a role typically filled by her husband. "All Andrew has to do is look at him and (Jonathan) listens," she explained. "(Now) he acts up more. He takes advantage of that."
She used to hang out with her friends while her husband watched him. She now spends virtually every minute with him. At times, they seem more like big sister and little brother. It feels like that, too, she conceded.
In most ways, she lives the typical life of a 20-something. She watches Spanish-language soap operas and reality television shows, such as "Flavor of Love" and "I Love New York," both about finding love.
She drives around in his white Toyota Scion with a "Marine Dad" sticker in the back window and wishes she could spend more nights out on the town.
Molina never thought she'd be a single mother and harbors empathy for those who don't have a husband around all the time.
She's hopeful that his absence won't affect her son. He knows his dad has gone to Iraq, but he doesn't know what's happening there.
Neither does his mother. She doesn't read news reports and changes the channel if a broadcast about the war comes on.
She's already heard too many stories she wants to forget. One serviceman was deployed 12 months and was forced to stay four more. In the second phase of his tour he was killed. "I want (the war) over and done with," she insisted. "I just want them to come home."
Though his March return nears, she isn't counting on it coming true. All remains uncertain in love and war. All she can do is wait for his mission to end -- and for theirs to begin.
Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at 209 385-2453 or email@example.com.