While Nancy Spaugh's son was still writing her newsy letters about his life as an Army private in Saudi Arabia, he sent her husband a somber note explaining where to find his will "in case something terrible happens."
Spaugh's son, Gerald Rosier, 21, didn't want her to worry.
But she saw the letter anyway when it arrived in early December, and she decided that, under the circumstances, Christmas wouldn't be the same.
"I'm not even having a Christmas," because Christmas is for getting the whole family together, Spaugh explained.
On Christmas Day, Spaugh said, she and her husband will drive from their home in Westminster to Florida for a 10-day vacation. Their other grown children will celebrate the day with in-laws.
The Spaughs are one of many families in Maryland, and across the country, who are making plans, or non-plans, for a holiday season that arrives one family member short. And they are one of many families hanging on every word of news they get from the media and from letters from Saudi Arabia, trying to determine the safety of their loved ones.
In the Spaugh house, the television is switched on to Cable News Network 24 hours a day. They sleep with it on in their bedroom, in case they awake in the middle of the night and want assurance about the latest events.
Rosier, Nancy Spaugh's son, is an active-duty private who operates an anti-tank gun with the 82nd Airborne Division. He enlisted after his graduation in 1988 from Westminster High School. His letters home have chatted about news he had received from home and about depressing conditions he found in Saudi Arabia.
In October, Rosier wrote that the average temperature was 104 degrees Fahrenheit and that the towns he traveled through were filthy and without plumbing. "Baltimore City slums are the land of the rich and famous compared to this place," he wrote.
In early November, he wrote, "Not much happening yet," and said he expected to be home by Christmas.
But in a letter dated Nov. 24 to his stepfather, Ron Spaugh, Rosier said, "I'm afraid things are starting to look pretty bad over here," though he didn't elaborate why. "The reason I'm writing you all this is to let you know how to get my stuff in case something terrible happens."
Rosier told his stepfather where to find the keys and combination to the locks securing his personal belongings in his room at Fort Bragg, N.C., where he had been stationed before his deployment. In one chest, Rosier said, "are the keys to my locker . . . trunks and my car and the house keys. Also in the top drawer is my will. It is a generic one, but it leaves everything to you and mom."
"It shook me up," his mother said. "I feel like he knows more than I do."
Then, a videotape message he sent this month made her feel better. Rosier assured her that he and his unit were ready for anything, even though he said the food was bad and soldiers were complaining about the lack of leave.
Rosier told his mother all was well, but that he hated being there. "The desert, oh it's beautiful," he said, describing its cool darkness at night.
"I really don't want him there; I would be silly if I said I did," Nancy Spaugh said. "But I feel like we're doing the right thing."
As much as she wants her son to be safe from war, she is angry that local students are planning a protest against the threat of war. "This is what happened with Vietnam. They started protesting against the government, then against the soldier," she said. "Why are they pushing their feelings on us?"
She said she trusts President Bush's strategy, though recently she has become confused about what the strategy is. For a while in November, Bush was saying that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had to be confronted before he developed nuclear weapons. That made sense to Spaugh when she heard it. Then, this month, Bush announced diplomatic talks with Iraq, but didn't mention the threat of a nuclear weapon in the hands of Saddam.
"I can't understand why we're not going after him. This is what we've been building up for," Spaugh said.
Sometimes, when she's bothered by a piece of ominous news, Spaugh calls a number at Fort Bragg and talks with a counselor. Once the counselor put the wife of her son's company commander on the phone. She told Spaugh about the company's recent maneuvers, and said the company got so close to the Kuwaiti border on one outing "they could spit on it."
Spaugh said these conversations have helped, but she needs even more news to help ease the suspense.
Spaugh and another Westminster woman whose son is stationed in Saudi Arabia plan to start a support group for the families of deployed servicemen and women. They want a group with a clearly defined mission of mutual support, supplemented by a network of referrals for family members who may need professional counseling.
Around Jan. 15 -- the United Nations' deadline for a peaceful settlement before the use of military force is authorized -- "a lot of parents aren't going to be fit to be around," Spaugh said. "I think every parent is going to be hanging on their TV. I'm not leaving the house."
But on Christmas Day, she is leaving home. And she doesn't plan to celebrate under her son returns. "Our Christmas will take place when you come home," she recently wrote to her son. "Our Christmas will be you."