Last Sunday was mothers' time out: Kimi Bond and Amy Greif hired a baby sitter and headed for Harborplace. "We went out all day . . . It was the best feeling. We had been out to brunch, but this was all day just to be with a friend," says Mrs. Bond.
The two women haven't been friends forever -- only since "a week after the ground war started," she says. Nonetheless, they've already shared bad times: the trials of single parenthood, feeling lonely, thoughts about death. And they've celebrated the good: Mrs. Bond's new job, watching their children play together, going out for an afternoon.
Now they are waiting together for their husbands to come home from the Persian Gulf.
These friends are among tens of thousands of Americans who joined one of the grass roots support groups that sprang up across the nation for those with family or friends in the gulf war.
Many joined a group for solace and information -- and then, like Mrs. Bond and Mrs. Greif, found a little bit more.
Now, after months of sharing feelings, group members are facing the peculiarly bittersweet task that will follow their loved ones' return -- winding down their groups and getting on with their lives.
For some, the weekly meetings meant contact with people who truly understood their fears. For others, the gatherings served as a market place of ideas and information about a distant country that held danger for someone cherished.
"Everyone meshed," says Cecilia Hoehn, co-founder of a Rosedale group that included parents and fiances, husbands and grandparents of U.S. troops.
Last week, the group voted to switch from weekly to bi-monthly meetings. "It feels strange not to have somewhere to go on Wednesday nights," says Ms. Hoehn, who was with the group both the night the ground war started and the night the war ended.
"It's kind of different now when you don't have meetings to go to," agrees Dawn M. Rhoads, a Baltimore flight attendant whose fiance was sent to the gulf. "There's kind of a void."
Despite such feelings, most groups will taper off, says retired Col. Jesse J. Harris, professor of social work at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, who worked with colleagues to make a video of one Baltimore support group.
"As the men and women return, the groups will diminish in size. . . . For most people, the bonds they have formed will have served to get them over the crisis."
But, he adds, many still have a need to attend meetings: in some cases because their loved one has not yet returned from the gulf; in others, because changes have occurred both in those who are returning and those who remained at home.
Groups at Fort Meade, which are for active-duty families, stress that each person will have changed during the separation.
"There are spouses who have been very self-sufficient," says Marci Emerson, family services coordinator at Army Community Service. "Or the military person has been focused on issues that don't have to do with family so they have to regroup, to focus back on the family. It takes patience. They're both usually motivated to improve the relationship so it can be a time of growth."
For some military families, the strain of waiting for troops to come home -- after the months of acute anxiety -- may be the most trying experience of all, says Fredrick Medway, professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina. "What seems to be happening is that this is the most difficult phase of the war. Some of the families are getting angry because of the changing around of times of when the troops are coming home."
But many group members say the bonds they've formed are the real magnet that draws them back to support group meetings.
"Emotions and feelings are the glue of a good relationship. We have seen some very strong emotions and so we have a very closely knit group of people here," says Kay Hunley, director of emergency services for Central Maryland Chapter of the Red Cross and a group facilitator.
"We had an overwhelming vote to continue," says Baltimore resident Ed Brody, who started a parents' group that grew to nearly 200 members. Group members also are planning a reunion "because there are relationships here that will never diminish," he said.
The reunion will not only bring together group members, but also introduce those who went overseas to the people who played a huge role in the lives of family members who stayed behind, Mr. Brody says.
Another group has decided to issue a certificate of participation to each member -- a little like a diploma. Some members have written poems that will be printed and given out with the certificate. And later this summer, the Red Cross will offer reunion workshops for anyone who needs them.