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Rebuilding Iraq

  Renee Larrabee (third from left) studies hard and has fun with fellow students, but she also misses her mom, now at Fort Drum in New York. ''The more I don't think about it, the better,'' Renee says. (Globe Staff Photo / Suzanne Kreiter)


Survival skills

A month ago, Renee Larrabee's mother was called to active duty. Between schoolwork and time spent with friends and family, the seventh-grader has had to learn to cope with her absence.

By Irene Sege, Globe Staff, 3/18/2003

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 second in a series of occasional articles on the family of one National Guardswoman called to active duty.

RAMINGHAM -- The cafeteria at the Walsh Middle School is teeming with seventh-graders -- ponytailed girls in jeans that cling and boys in baggy pants with plenty of pockets -- when Renee Larrabee and a half-dozen friends take their usual seats at the corner table. They open their bag lunches and giggle about the previous afternoon's noisy trip to a nearby CVS, where a manager kicked them out after they pressed the call button by the fragrance cabinet too many times.

Here, Renee is one more kid who joshes with her pals in the halls, decorates the inside of her locker with polka dot wallpaper, carries around an overstuffed backpack, and plans to compete in the school's three-on-three basketball tournament. Hints of the world beyond Walsh come in newspaper articles posted about the space shuttle Columbia disaster and a map of the Persian Gulf outside Renee's homeroom that has the words "Do you know where Iraq is?"

That real world is not so far away for Renee. A month ago her mom, Michelle Wissler, a purchasing agent and truck driver in the National Guard, was called to active duty for as long as a year. If Turkey had allowed US troops to base troops there for an Iraq invasion, Wissler, 39, would be overseas by now. Instead, she's at Fort Drum in upstate New York, waiting for orders to ship out that -- like war itself -- could come any day.

After dividing her time between parents who have been separated since she was a toddler, Renee, 13, now lives full time with her father, Bill Larrabee, in Framingham. She's spending less time with her 18-year-old brother, Christopher Bilodeau, who's still in their mother's house in Marlborough, and more time with her Auntie Wanda, her father's sister, who looks after her while Bill Larrabee, a machinist, works three 12 1/2-hour shifts a week. Renee misses her mother and tries to will her safe.

"I worry, but I don't think anything will really happen to her," Renee says. "I try to think, `If I keep thinking it, it won't happen.' "

In a middle-school cafeteria, however, those thoughts seem as distant as Baghdad.

"The day after her mom left, Renee was really quiet," says Helena Tsai, who is 12 and still has yellow paint on her shoelace from the paintball party Renee had for her birthday. "Later on she became herself. Hyper. Crazy."

"Can't stay on one subject," says Christine Caruso, 12.

"Fun to be around," says Meaghan Fitzpatrick, who is also 12.

Beneath the veneer, however, are subtle changes. Renee is, by turns, more serious and sillier as she settles into a new normalcy. Her teachers notice that she is trying hard to keep her pledge to her mother to improve her grades. Her father, 43, notices that his outgoing, lighthearted girl acts a little goofier and is more likely to want her friends around. "It's her way of covering any feelings she may have," he says.

Renee always wears a necklace from her mom. One day it's the chain with her mother's rings that Wissler gave her before she left. The next, she wears the pendant her mother sent from Fort Drum that has an angel on one side and the inscription "Watch over me and protect me" on the other.

"The more I don't think about it, the better," Renee says. "It's better being used to it than always thinking about it. It is a big deal, but I kind of go on with my regular life."

At first, Renee had to struggle to keep from weeping when her mother called every few days. "It's easier now. A lot easier," the girl says. "I just talk to her like I would normally talk to her if she wasn't away. Not as if I hadn't seen her in a while and there's so much to catch up on."

Daily life continues

Weekdays in the Larrabee household start with Matthew Noe, Renee's best friend, neighbor, and fellow seventh-grader, stopping by on the way to school. He's a 13-year-old news junkie who watches television newscasts each morning. Since Renee's mom left, he has delivered a daily briefing for the girl who's been his buddy since first grade.

"I just tell her what's going on over there," Matt says. "Like they keep saying they're going to extend the deadline. Then they say it's March 17 and they're not going to extend it again."

For all her clowning in the corridor, Renee is quiet and attentive when she takes her seat in class. In social studies, Mr. Rodriguez wants students' maps of Colonial America in 1763 to show the disputed territory between New York and New Hampshire that became Vermont, thanks to Ethan Allen -- probably better known to students for the furniture store on nearby Route 9. In English, Ms. Weikert asks students to recall their earliest favorite books, which they may remember listening to their mothers read aloud. Renee, who loves to shop for sneakers, mentions "Harry Has New Shoes," a book Auntie Wanda used to read to her.

"When I'm about to take a test, I'll think, `This is for Mom, so I have to do good. I have to do my best,' " Renee says. "Normally, I would just take the test. Now I'm trying a lot more."

Before her mother left, Renee promised her she'd try to get straight A's, but making honor roll seems a big enough goal. So far, her teachers say Renee's moving in that direction. Maybe her performance would have improved even if her mother were home, because most kids her age go through lots of changes. Or maybe circumstance is pushing her to grow up a little faster.

"At the beginning of seventh grade, these kids are their childish selves. By the middle of seventh grade, some of them begin to take things more seriously," says Alexander Rodriguez, the social studies teacher. "Renee's gotten a little bit better academically. Maybe she has a sense of being more responsible. She's participating more in class. She's bringing in her work."

"It's not something that's going to improve like that," English teacher Leigh Weikert says with a snap of her fingers. "But the effort is there, and she seems determined. This has seemed to make her branch out a bit more."

Still, her progress unfolds amid the uncertainty of the outbreak of war itself and anticipation of her mother's likely deployment abroad. "I'll be more worried when she's overseas," Renee says.

That is what the Walsh staff is watching for. "It isn't really real yet," says Maura Overlan, the school's social worker.

Renee is one of three students whose parents have been mobilized -- too few, Overlan says, to start a support group, as the school did during the Gulf War in 1991, when seven or eight Walsh kids had parents serving overseas.

"The most we can do is be here to support Renee," says Robert Heller, her guidance counselor. "We don't know what to expect."

Humor helps

More and more lately, Bill Larrabee shows up after school to pick up Renee and Matt and drive them to the ranch house he shares with his sister and two brothers. Ever since Renee's mom left, Matt has been hanging out a lot with Renee. Sometimes the smallest thing -- the word "sheep," say, or the phrase "We can't let it out to the main populace" -- leads to gales of laughter.

"Some people that I'm not that friends with will want to talk about it," Renee says. "Matt knows I don't want to talk about it. We have so many inside jokes that instead of being sad, we're happy because we're funny."

While Renee and Matt munch on pizza snacks in the kitchen, tended by Wanda Larrabee, the TV in the living room, usually tuned to Fox News these days, brings a report from Fort Drum: A Black Hawk helicopter on a training mission from the base is down. "Did you hear that?" Bill Larrabee calls.

Renee and Matt finish their homework, and, as afternoon slips into evening, Bill Larrabee takes them to the Natick Mall to shop and see Renee's brother. The day after Wissler left, Chris Bilodeau lost his plasterer's job for taking time off without permission. Now he has a new job, buttonholing shoppers to fill out surveys. Whenever he calls, Renee hears him trying to stay strong for her.

"He'll ask me how I'm doing with Mom," Renee says. "I'll ask him, and he'll say, `I'm fine. I'm holding up.' But you can tell he's been sad at a lot of points."

"With stuff about our mother, you really do have to keep your head up," Bilodeau says. "If your head goes down, you're going to lose the vision of the future. Renee tells me `I miss her,' and I tell her `She misses you, too, but she's away now, and we have to be as grown-up as we can.' "

Bill Larrabee brings Bilodeau a cinnamon pretzel and buys Renee a shirt at Bebe and white sneakers at Champs. As he and his two charges leave for home, the Kid Rock-Sheryl Crow duet, "Picture," waft over the mall's sound system. The song was playing on the car radio the night Wissler drove her daughter to Framingham and said goodbye. Finally, Renee can listen to it without crying.

Night, when she's alone in her basement room, "just sitting there," is the hardest time. She moved her mother's employee photo ID, which had been hanging on her closet pole, to a spot on the wall beside her bed. "Like watching over me," she says.

On Saturday, while antiwar protesters rally around the world and President Bush prepares for a summit about a looming deadline for war, Renee gets a phone call from an aunt. Her mother has a day off at Fort Drum. Does Renee want to drive to upstate New York for a visit? By the time Wissler calls, Renee has already wept. No, she tells her tearful mom, trying to keep her own voice steady, she doesn't want to visit.

"It's been around a month. I'm used to it. And I'm doing really good," Renee says. "If I see her, it will be so hard to leave. Then it would be as hard for me as when she left. I didn't want to go through it again."

Irene Sege can be reached at

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 3/18/2003.
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