I remember watching with fascination the television coverage of the Earth-orbiting Mercury space missions, particularly the animated film of their re-entry.
The space capsule would be shown dropping through the atmosphere bottom first as the heat shield turned crayon-red. The astronauts inside, we schoolchildren were assured, were cool as cucumbers.
All these years later, my husband returned home from an extended business trip and it suddenly occurred to me that he, too, could use a heat shield.
Even as the kids and I turned up the fire under the poor guy, I was thinking with cool detachment that he needed something that would protect him from the metal-melting friction he experienced on his re-entry.
We were pretty brutal. My 16-year-old son made lots of sarcastic remarks such as, ''Father? Dad? Now there's a concept for you. I wonder what it would be like to have one?''
My 14-year-old daughter -- who doesn't have a mean bone in her body -- made the most unkind cut without meaning to do so. ''Was Daddy gone? I thought he was sleeping late,'' she said.
And I? I made the poor man feel the tire marks on his chest for every car pool trip he was not there to make.
''I didn't marry you so I could be a single parent,'' I said, a remark that could be stitched in a sampler over our fireplace.
All he had done to deserve this abuse was crisscross the nation earning a living, sleeping in hot, dry hotel rooms, eating room service, all the while pining for his wife and kids, his own bed and my meatloaf.
(OK. He was covering the NCAA basketball tournament, a job any of the men reading this column would love. Take a minute and ask your wife how she would feel about it.)
This sort of work has been my husband's job for all our married life, so this chilly welcome was no surprise to him. When my children were little, my baby daughter would cry and cling to me at the sight of him, and my toddler son would whack him angrily in the leg. I guess you could call it a pattern.
And he has adapted. While most men would drop their suitcases in the front hall and go straight to the fridge for some comfort food and then to the easy chair for some TV, my husband leaves the car running and cheerily suggests, ''Honey, let's go out to dinner.''
I guess he has learned that any other approach to a woman who has been eating Spaghettios with kids might require him to duck.
Gifts work with the kids, but time works better. If he doesn't press too hard for their attention, they will soon drift toward him with their reports and their requests.
Why are we so mean to someone we have missed so much? Why do we punish him for doing his job? It is not as though he was in Vegas gambling with buddies. Why must he endure this emotional quarantine until we readmit him to our daily life?
I don't know, but I am sure that if there was any way around this gauntlet instead of through it, my husband would have found it by now, because he abhors conflict.
There is a reason grief and anger are so tangled up together. We are wretched at the absence of one we love and furious at them for being part of the leaving. We cry tears of loss and tears of fury.
When they return, that anger gets all mixed up with relief to form a kind of lingering resentment. And this gets layered over with remorse for our own selfish behavior.
What a mess. It is a wonder the poor man ever leaves.
And a greater wonder that he still wants to come home.
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