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Becoming a Soldier's Mother

By Paula Stern
6/11/2009, 12:00 AM

Weeks after my oldest son turned six, our family packed up all that we owned, and moved across the world to Israel. We did it for more reasons than I could mention here and that’s another story in itself. Weeks later, not yet fluent in the language that was to become, in many ways, his mother tongue, Elie entered first grade.

Like all young children in Israel, he grew up while learning basic realities about himself and his obligations to his homeland. One of the constants was the knowledge that he would enter the Israeli army and serve his country. It was, in those early years, a distant cloud in the sky that seemed so incredibly beautiful.

About six weeks before Elie entered the army, I realized that I needed something else. I needed to talk through my feelings, express them, absorb them and explain them. I did what I almost always do when feeling overwhelmed, I sat down and began to write. As it took shape and form, the story of one boy’s transition into a soldier became a universal rite of passage, both for a boy, and his mother.

Elie’s been in the army for two years now but as I start this new blog, I’d like to take a few posts to go back and explain how Elie became a soldier, and I became a soldier’s mother.

Starting Young - Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Starting from a very young age, Israeli boys know that they are destined to go to the army. It's part of how they grow up, where they are headed, who they will become. For those of us who came to Israel as adults, it's something that is harder to assimilate. It's so easy, year after year, to deny that it will happen, to postpone dealing with it. So, here I am, six weeks away from when my son will enter the Israeli army, suddenly having it all become real. This blog is a soldier's mother's story.

Elie is 19 years old. A handsome boy with the most incredible blue eyes. He's smart, a volunteer in the ambulance squad, and lest you think that I think he is perfect, he's got a mighty fine temper and his room's a terrible mess. Elie is the manager of the family, the one who analyzes everything. From the time he was young, he didn't trust us mere adults to manage things. When everyone else would fall asleep on those long evening drives home after a long vacation or whatever, Elie would stay awake and keep watch. "Are we lost?" he would ask when I hesitated. Only Elie.

Once, on a trip to Eilat, we really were lost. Only Elie was awake when I pulled up to the roadblock and queried the soldier why he wouldn't open the gate to let us pass.

"Where do you want to go?" the soldier asked.

"Eilat," I answered.

He smiled, "Back 29 kilometers and make a right."

"What's that ahead of us?" I asked.

"Egypt" was his answer.

I made a u-turn, while everyone else was sleeping and looked in the mirror to see Elie's eyes watching me. Always watching. Always Elie.

So - Elie is all grown up now, a man about to go to the army. We got his "marching" orders last week - artillery unit, and already I am panicking. Not because I don't want him to go, but because I haven't had the time to accept it all. My daughter, Elie's older sister, is getting married in a few weeks and two weeks after that, Elie goes in. I've been up to my elbows in wedding plans and jitters. Dresses and caterers and invitations and most importantly, smoothing out the nerves of a happy and excited bride. And, in the middle of all this, quietly moving closer and closer was this date - end of March, 2007, my son will be a soldier.