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Rebuilding Iraq

  Sergeant Michelle Wissler hugs her daughter, Renee Larrabee, at a send-off ceremony in the Hingham Armory for members of the Army National Guard who are being called up for active duty. (Globe Staff Photo / Suzanne Kreiter)


After the goodbyes

One family copes when duty calls a mother to go overseas

By Irene Sege, Globe Staff, 2/26/2003

As the United States continues its buildup of troops for a possible war with Iraq, one scene has become familiar: tearful goodbyes as men and women in the National Guard are called up for active duty. Today, the Globe begins a series of occasional articles looking at life on the home front for one local family.

he speeches on the makeshift stage at the Hingham Armory are all about patriotism, courage, and sacrifice. Governor Mitt Romney salutes the 138 men and women of the Army National Guard as heroes who have been called upon to "live larger than yourselves." But to a slight 13-year-old girl named Renee Larrabee, the morning is less about preparing for distant battles than about saying goodbye to Mom.

Sitting in a field of folding chairs earlier this month, Renee wipes away tears as her hair falls into her face. On her lap is the "Citizen Soldier" spiral notebook that her mother, Sergeant Michelle Wissler, gave her to use as a journal. Around her neck, on the same gold chain as the crucifix she got for Christmas, dangle her mother's wedding and engagement rings, mementos given a few days earlier, when Wissler learned she would be deployed overseas for as long as a year.

As Wissler, a 39-year-old purchasing agent from Marlborough who drives a truck in the National Guard, mobilizes for war, Renee and her family and friends, like others at the Hingham Armory send-off, engage in a mobilization of their own. Tending the home fires of the complicated family that Wissler leaves behind will require a proverbial village. Wissler and Bill Larrabee, Renee's dad, never married and haven't lived together in a decade, but they share custody of Renee, and he's been father in deed, if not blood, to Wissler's 18-year-old son, Christopher Bilodeau. There are also aunts and uncles, Wissler's estranged husband, and family friends so dear everyone calls them "uncle" and "cousin."

After the ceremony, Bilodeau lifts his mother and envelops her in a hug.

"She's my mom," he proclaims. "And she's in the US Army."

Renee manages a smile. "I'm proud," she says. "But sad."

Wissler, who has shed tears of her own this morning, confesses to "mixed" emotions. "I'm excited," she says. "But I know it's going to be really hard to say goodbye. "

New arrangements

The moment she walked into the house Feb. 1 and saw her mother crying, Renee knew what had happened: The Guard had called, and Mom was going away, maybe to war. Renee wept, too, and her brother embraced the two of them. Wissler's orders came on a Saturday night; she would ship out with the 1058th Transportation Company for training in Fort Drum, N.Y., early Thursday morning.

That left Wissler little time to write herself out of the script of her family's daily life and recruit her own stand-ins. There were arrangements to be made with the husband who no longer lives in the house they jointly own, a job to leave, instructions to give a son on the cusp of adulthood, and heartfelt conversations to have with a seventh-grade daughter who feels more comfortable confiding in her mother than her father.

Renee, who split her week between Wissler's house and her father's, would now live full time in Framingham with Larrabee, a 43-year-old machinist who works three 121/2-hour shifts on the days Renee usually spent with her mother. Now Larrabee's 47-year-old sister, Wanda, would claim a share of Wissler's role.

Amid the hubbub of the Hingham send-off, Wissler gazes at her daughter. "She's got a goal," Wissler says. "To get all A's on her next report card. That's her goal to help me make it through."

Michelle Wissler gets a giant hug from her son, Christopher Bilodeau, at the Hingham Armory as Bill Larrabee looks on. (Globe Staff Photo / Suzanne Kreiter)


The main figures in the Wissler/ Larrabee family.

Sergeant Michelle Wissler, 39, a purchasing agent from Marlborough who is a truck driver in the 1058th Transportation Company.

Renee Larrabee, 13, Wissler's daughter, who is a student at Walsh Middle School in Framingham. She'll live with her father while Wissler is on active duty.

Bill Larrabee, 43, a machinist who is Renee's father. He lives in Framingham with his sister and two brothers.

Wanda Larrabee, 47, Bill Larrabee's sister, who will help care for Renee while Wissler is away.

Christopher Bilodeau, 18, Wissler's son, who will remain in Marlborough. He considers Bill Larrabee his father.

Robert Hickey, 58, a family friend known as "Uncle Bobby," who lives with Christopher in Marlborough.

More uneasily, Wissler decides that her son - less than a month past his 18th birthday - will remain in her Marlborough house. A longtime family friend, Robert Hickey, whom Wissler's children call "Uncle Bobby," will continue to live there, too, now as grown-up in residence when he's not working his day job as a school-bus driver and his night job staffing a homeless shelter. "I'm a nervous wreck," Wissler says.

Wissler spends her last evening in Massachusetts bidding farewell to the relatives who stop by her house, with its "God Bless America" doormat out front. It's late when she drives her daughter to Framingham, and on the car radio, Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow sing "Picture." This, they decide, will be their song.

"I put your picture away," the duet goes. "Sat down and cried today."

All night in her basement bedroom, where her mother's photo ID from work hangs on the closet pole, Renee sobs. She buys the CD over the weekend to listen to while Wissler is away.

"When her mother comes home," Bill Larrabee says, "she'll be totally different."

By her own account and her dad's, Renee is more active socially this year than last, and when she started hanging with a new clique her mom counseled her not to give up old friends. Renee likes skateboarding and basketball and calls herself one of the "funny kids," and her website pays silly homage to sheep. A girl who not long ago favored baggy pants and Wal-Mart has discovered tight jeans and Abercrombie & Fitch. Now her mom's not here.

"It's got its ups and downs," Renee says. "I don't have my mom to talk to and stuff. If I'm not talking to my mom, then I don't have anyone to talk to. My dad's not the type for advice. I'd probably go to my cousin or my aunt."

Along with the big down of crying whenever she listens to the song "Picture," the ups include the way her father has been indulging her lately: buying her the jacket she wanted at the Natick Mall, for instance, and planning to buy her a kitten. Instead of simply getting her started on her homework, as he used to do, he often sits with her now while she works. Renee says a friend told her she deserves a medal for bravery. Her brother calls more often, too.

"Usually it would be if he lost something, and he thinks I know where it is. Now he just calls to talk," Renee says. "If I'm a little sad, people hover over me. I like the attention."

Renee goes to middle school in Framingham and catches the bus not far from the white ranch house her dad shares with his sister and two brothers. When he works those long shifts on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, other adults - mainly Renee's hearty Auntie Wanda - will be home with her.

"You have to improvise," Larrabee says. "She's a little trouper. I don't know what it will be like a couple of months down the road."

Wanda Larrabee, the woman of the house since she moved back from Florida in 2001, is strict. When she's in charge, her niece can't log on to the computer until her homework is done. "I was a wild child," says Larrabee, who works part time installing drywall. "I tell her, `There's no way you're going to grow up like I was."'

The other evening, Larrabee was on her way to Waltham for dinner with a friend, but she couldn't stop thinking that Renee seemed sad. So she dropped off the take-out food, turned around, picked up an Austin Powers video, and spent the night watching it with Renee. "I'm not a huggy person," the aunt says, "but if she's crying, I'll put my arm around her. I tell her constantly that I love her."

Renee has been spending more time on her homework lately, studying when she might have watched MTV before. Her goal is to make the honor roll at Walsh Middle School. "High honor roll would be a lot," she says. One evening, her mother calls from Fort Drum.

"I tried to be strong," Renee says. "If I started to cry, I would try to talk in a different voice so it wouldn't sound like I was sad."

Growing pains

If Wissler were still at home, chances are there'd be a second pot on the stove beside the one with boiling water and pasta. It would contain vegetables, and maybe there'd be pork chops cooking. Now dinner will be noodles and tomato sauce from a jar. While Wissler's son sits at the kitchen table, talking to a visitor, friends watching television in the next room take turns darting in to check the food.

Bilodeau is not much older than his mother was when she joined the National Guard 22 years ago. "I had dropped out of high school and was looking to change my life," Wissler says. "I became stronger, independent, confident in myself." Wissler reenlisted in 1996, after a hiatus of a dozen years.

Now her service may, indirectly, force similar changes in her son, a strikingly handsome young man with close-cropped hair and a small silver hoop in each ear. He quit high school in 11th grade and hopes to get his GED.

"She told me I needed to be responsible," Bilodeau says. "I needed to get my act together. She said she would have to trust me, put faith in God that I make it. This is a big step for me."

While his sister lives with her father, support for Bilodeau comes from Hickey, 58, the family friend who moved in a few months ago. "Michelle asked me to just watch the place. Make sure there are no parties or nothing like that," Hickey says. "I raised both my kids. It's kind of strange. It seems like you have to be a parent all over and make sure everything's cool."

Bilodeau's former girlfriend, 19-year-old Stacey Hebert, lives in the house, too, and Hickey's younger son, 20-year-old Darren, whom Bilodeau calls "cousin," moved in shortly after Wissler left. Bill Larrabee is only one town away. "My dad Bill brought me up the way a man brings his son up," Bilodeau says. But all these people don't add up to his mom.

"I've never been not able to call my mother and say, `I have a problem, come fix it,"' Bilodeau says. "She was the glue that held everything together. She was the leader of our small band of gypsies. She was a pillar of hope."

"Chris," says Larrabee, "will have to grow up fast."

Already Bilodeau has learned one hard lesson. He told his boss, he says, that he'd miss work as a plasterer the day of his mother's send-off ceremony, but he didn't say why. He was absent the next day, too, so his boss fired him and replaced him. In retrospect, Bilodeau wishes he had mentioned the reason he was absent.

"We had a couple of big jobs, and I wasn't around," he says. "He was kind of mad at me."

When his mother, the household's quartermaster, was home, Bilodeau's supermarket savvy was limited to the snack aisle. Now he needs to do more. The other day, he went shopping for groceries with $50 in his wallet and Hebert by his side. She told him that buying SpaghettiOs was an expensive way to get pasta. At the check-out counter, he was over by about $20. "I put back the ice cream," he says. "I put back some pickles. I got six loaves of bread and put back three. Three cartons of milk. I put back one."

Bilodeau looks around the kitchen. The gray formica on the countertops is only a few years old, and the cabinets are recently painted. But the linoleum floor is aged and worn. He wants to lay a new one by the time his mother comes home.

"I think she'd be very proud if we have this house in good shape when she gets back," he says. "I miss her so much."

Irene Sege can be reached at

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 2/26/2003.
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