December 20, 2014

Common thread stitches families together

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 1, 2013

SALISBURY — Mary Kesler and Andrea Mohammad have known each other for a couple of years. But they talked and joked like family sitting in Kesler’s living room.

Though the two women are decades apart in age, a strong thread ties them together — Mary spent more than three decades as a Navy wife. Andrea became an Army wife in 2010.

“She’s been my military mentor,” Andrea says.

Andrea says Mary has given her a lot while her husband has been serving in Afghanistan — advice and encouragement, tough love and reassurance.

This week in the living room, Mary gave Andrea a gift — a quilt for her husband and his fellow troops.

It was supposed to be a Father’s Day gift, but an injury sidelined Mary for a few weeks.

The delay is fitting, though. The quilt with an American flag pattern is now ready just in time for the Fourth of July.

Quilts are a big deal for Mary. She’s been making them since 1985, when she and her husband, Capt. Gene Kesler, moved back to Salisbury after years at Naval bases around the world. One quilt hanging prominently in her living room reads, “Home is where the Navy sends you.” It includes pictures of the different houses her family called home — from Maine to California, Florida to Hong Kong.

Quilting started as a hobby. Now, it’s something more. Mary’s quilts help people.

As part of the Salisbury Rowan Quilters’ Guild, Mary and fellow quilters spread a lot of warmth around Rowan County and beyond. Cuddle quilts for the children at an abused women’s shelter. Comfortable quilts for hospice patients. Patriotic quilts for the members of the VA Hospital Color Guard.

Andrea came late to the life of a military wife. She and Qasim have been married for 16 years. They met in Wilmington then settled into life in the beach front town of Southport. They had two kids, Jacob, 14, and Layla, 10. They bought and ran a small gas station.

Qasim freelanced translating jobs on the side, using the language skills he gained growing up in Brazil and the West Bank.

In 2010, things changed. Jacob was sick. His diagnosis — leukemia.

The Army needed people who spoke Arabic. Qasim and Jacob needed health insurance.

He was 36 — the oldest trainee struggling through boot camp in Ft. Jackson, S.C. In January, he shipped out for Afghanistan, where he’s scheduled to stay through the fall. He’s older than most of his sergeants.

Andrea, Jacob and Layla settled in Salisbury, where Andrea found a job at the Rowan Medical Child Development Center. The toughest part is keeping in touch, Andrea says. Internet service overseas can be sporadic and it often takes days to hear back.

That’s not something we’re used to in the age of texts and Twitter.

“We’re so spoiled with technology,” Andrea says. “A lot gets lost in the timing.”

Mary reminds her that all she would get when Gene was at sea were handwritten letters and an occasional call.

“We’ve been there and done that,” she says.

Meanwhile, Andrea sends care packages — to Qasim and the other soldiers in his group.

There’s an art and science to packing a military care package and Andrea has become an expert after sending 10 a month. The boxes provided by the military can fit exactly 5 packs of Pringles, 2 coffees, 3 creamers and 40 fun dips, she says. “But the fun dips will break.”

It’s not easy on the kids either. Jacob says he misses morning trips to Krispy Kreme — just he and Dad. And living in a house full of women presents challenges, he says, especially when it comes to TV show choices.

“We watch the Hallmark channel a lot,” Layla jokes.

Jacob, his leukemia now in remission, stays busy. He volunteers at Rowan Regional Medical Center and City Park. In many ways, he’s a typical 14-year-old boy. His right arm bears a fluorescent colored cast from a basketball injury. It will be off in time for him to start high school at Salisbury High in the fall.

For all the difficulties, there have been joyful moments as well. Moments that underscore the strong threads tying soldiers and their families to one another. At Jacob’s church confirmation ceremony this spring, Andrea kept trying to set up a video chat with Qasim so he could see.

Just before the preacher called Jacob’s name, Qasim’s voice came booming through the phone. She held up the screen and saw his fellow troops gathered around the computer. Then came the sight no one in the family will forget — the toughest of men in Army fatigues bawling tears of joy as they watched Jacob cross the stage.

Mary got out of the hospital last week after breaking her leg in a fall at home. The first thing she did was put the finishing touches on the flag quilt. She left blank fabric around the flag and on the back side for each member of Qasim’s company to sign.

She could have rested, but she hasn’t slowed down. Squares of fabric cover her kitchen table.

She’s on to the next project. The next gift.

Chuck McShane can be reached at cmcshane@salisburypost.com

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