Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, had an added glow in Gaithersburg this year as television and newspaper crews captured the quiet moments of one family's candle-lighting.
First, there were close-ups of Joel Frank with his two children, Evan, 7, and Lauren, 5 1/2 . Then, there were the questions. Polite questions about presents. Quick questions about politics. Gentle questions about school, schedules and single parenting.
But the Big Question was never far from mind. That question hung as heavily as day-old latkes, the potato pancakes that are traditional Hanukkah fare.
"Do I miss my mommy?" Evan said, echoing the question. "Very much.
"If she were here right now I'd say, 'I miss you and I hope you don't go on a trip that long again.' "
Melanie D. Frank isn't on a trip; she's on assignment. A U.S. Navy nurse, Lieutenant Commander Frank shipped out in August on the USNS Comfort, a floating hospital stationed in the Persian Gulf. When she left her loved ones, she expected to be gone at least six months.
Back then, no one knew what six months really meant: that is, six months without Mom on birthdays, school days, holidays.
"I've never spent this much time with my kids," said Joel Frank, 40, a Navy commander who oversees the Naval Reserve medical program. "I have spent every one of their waking hours at home with them trying to make it quality time.
"It's been trying, but rewarding."
Commander Frank, who works at the Pentagon, met his wife at the Naval Officers Club in Newport, R.I. Married in 1977, they share a commitment not only to career and country but also to faith and family. Commander Frank believes each of these bonds -- though strained by absence -- has grown stronger.
"This was a very meaningful Hanukkah," said Commander Frank, whose family lighted two brass menorahs and a clay one made by Evan. "I've done more with the kids than ever before -- staying home and lighting the candles every night."
The eight-day holiday, which began Dec. 11, is a time when Jewish families recount their ancestors' struggle for religious freedom from Syrian rulers. Families light the menorah and enjoy holiday customs such as giving gifts, playing with dreidels -- four-sided tops -- and eating potato pancakes.
This year Joel Frank prepared for Hanukkah alone.
He had to buy the gifts, decorate the house and set the mood.
He also had to take special care for his wife.
"We sent her Hanukkah gifts about a month ago," said Commander Frank, who has short-cropped hair and a mustache. "When you are on a ship for a long time you look for little things to do, so we sent her a couple of coloring books and crayons and an art doodle book.
"We also looked around the house for something which would mean something special to her. Evan had a nice-sized, stuffed red heart, and we thought she would like it."
Commander Frank noted that his wife, who works in the ship's intensive-care unit, has become more religiously observant since joining the Comfort. She has helped conduct Sabbath and High Holy Day services.
"That's not uncommon," he said. "When you are deployed you turn to things which you have in common with other people."
Along with her Hanukkah gifts, Commander Frank shipped holiday decorations -- the colored signs and paper hangings that normally festoon their home -- to his wife.
They were a hit.
"She sent us a videotape of her work space, and we could see the Hanukkah candles and decorations," he explained. "She lit the menorah every night."
Lieutenant Commander Frank, one of the few women and fewer Jews aboard the Comfort, sent back a computer graphic saying, "Best Wishes from the USNS Comfort." Lauren and Evan took the sign to South Lake Elementary School where, mounted on a blue backing, it hangs in the front lobby.
The daughter of a career Army officer, Lieutenant Commander Frank is a nurse who worked in obstetrics and gynecology at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. Since she is a career Navy officer, both she and her husband realized she would likely be called up if a crisis occurred. But they were still surprised when she got her orders.
They did their best to prepare Evan and Lauren for her leave-taking.
"We had, coincidentally, just bought a real nice, large-scale atlas, and we showed them where Mommy was going to fly to and where the ship would be," said Commander Frank, noting his wife had flown from Andrews Air Force Base to Rota, Spain, where she and her colleagues met the Comfort. "We told them about the world situation and watched the news every night to help them understand why Mommy was going over there. They accepted it better than we thought they would."
For a while at least.
"For the first three months, the kids didn't even notice she was gone," said Commander Frank, unexpectedly relieved by their acceptance of the situation. "But at the end of three months, on the same night when I tucked them in, they both said, 'When is Mommy coming back? I miss her.' "
They're not the only ones.