The paper chain her daughter made had 90 links and they hung it in the living room in September. Ninety links for 90 days. Come the third week in December, Jim Neville would be home from Saudi Arabia.

Eileen Neville had little taste for the ritual -- the thing looked so long it seemed a chain of hopelessness to her -- but every day 5-year-old Meghan and her grandfather removed a link and the chain grew shorter. It is all gone now, but Jim Neville is not back from Saudi Arabia. The official word is that the Army reservist's orders have been extended for another 90 days and then he should be home, but his daughter will not be cutting up more construction paper and stringing the loops together. The possibility that another chain might disappear before he returns is too much for Eileen.

As she tells this story, Eileen Neville's voice softens and quavers, just as it did the other night at Meghan's ballet class when the 36-year-old secretary found herself crying in the bathroom. Suddenly she sounds young and vulnerable, her competent demeanor rubbed thin.

"The tears come. They just come," she says. "No matter where you are or what you're doing, you just can't stop it. That drives me crazy, because I'm so sick of crying, and so sick of being alone."

Such rituals of waiting are by now familiar to hundreds of thousands of families around the country. Ordinary life with all of its ordinary responsibilities has not ceased since their relatives left for the Middle East, of course, and there is comfort for some in being so busy that they have little time or energy to think about how much they miss their husbands and wives, sons and daughters. But meeting the routine requirements of daily life is one thing and facing up to December is another. Of all times of the year, this month and its holidays seem to demand a breadth of emotion and energy beyond the resources of some depleted spirits.

"I tell you, I just couldn't get into it," Neville says of the tree and the presents and the whole thing, "but I had to for her." And so, for Meghan, there is a tall tree glazed with white snow and looped with beads. There were two days of birthday parties several weeks ago ("I have to spoil her") and the lamb outfit for Our Lady of Victory elementary school's Christmas pageant -- white stretchy clothes and a black ski hat from which two white socks hang, floppily earlike. There is the answering machine recording on which the kindergartner sings a Christmas carol and then announces, "Hark! Leave a message!"

Meghan is now darting about the house, torn between the desire to torment her new pet -- Saudi the cat -- and the urge to display recently acquired toys to the adults who fill the living room. Eileen, a soft and welcoming woman in whom powerful emotions are barely held in check, has gathered her family about her. Two grandfathers, one grandmother and Eileen's best friend, Sharon Mechlinksi, wait in the cozy house before going to see Meghan's debut as a lamb. These are people Eileen has always relied on for friendship and comfort, but recently the circle of support has grown both more essential and larger. Sharon has become, in many ways, a surrogate husband, fielding late-night calls and absorbing tumultuous emotions. Two neighbors who spent years in the military have become confidantes.

There are also several women she met only recently who have become sudden friends, bound together by an intimacy born of shared fears.

The phone calls come with soothing predictability. Sharon Smith of Middle River, Md., Mary Locke of Baltimore, Josephine Teague, speak to Eileen frequently, turning to her for information about their sons and daughter in Saudi Arabia. Jim Neville, a 39-year-old Miller beer salesman, is the oldest member of his small reserve troop from this area, and he has taken a paternal interest in the members of his troop, several of them young men who -- until they left for the Middle East -- had always lived at home with their parents. Unlike many, Jim Neville has access to a phone and so can call his wife every week. From the beginning he has passed along messages, which she then conveys to the parents. It has been nothing of great import -- word that everything is all right, the correction of a mistaken address in Saudi Arabia -- but even these little contacts have mattered.

"It's a lot better that Jim's there," says Sharon Smith, who owns a laundromat in Middle River and whose 18-year-old son, Michael, is one of Jim Neville's projects. "If I don't get a letter -- he's a boy, I guess when he's working 15 hours a day, it's a lot for him -- I know that Jim calls every week so I can hear how he's doing. And Mike's real shy. Jim said, 'I'm just taking him right out of that shell.' "

The women each have their individual tales of uniquely complicated and rich lives into which a common disruption has been hurled. Troy Barbour, Mary Locke's 20-year-old son, had to interrupt his college engineering courses and abandon a scholarship to leave for the Middle East. Michael Emkey, Sharon Smith's son, works for his stepfather and has never been away from his parents' home for any length of time. Marianne Rafferty, 33, closed down her data processing business and left her 8-year-old daughter behind with her mother, Josephine Teague.

Talk to Eileen, and saying goodbye to a husband is the hardest act. Talk to Mary Smith and the absence of a child seems worse: "I think of a husband as a big, tough guy who can handle anything," she says. "My son, even though he's 6 foot 4, 240 pounds -- he's my child." Talk to Jacqueline Teague and it becomes clear that the departure of a daughter and the arrival of a granddaughter are only further burdens for a woman who was already caring full time for a husband paralyzed three years ago: "I really don't have time to dwell on it," she says wearily of her daughter's posting to the Middle East.

Their opinions of what is happening in the Persian Gulf vary too. Sharon Smith is tired of friends telling her America should get out of the region -- her son is there and she is determined to believe in what he is doing. Mary Locke has been politicized by the experience and has come to question the wisdom of the entire venture -- she watches C-SPAN avidly, and has read from the Koran in an attempt to understand the country where her son is living, and she has decided that neither president nor Congress has taken seriously the risk to each separate American life sent into the desert.

But whatever their differences, they are all relieved to have others who understand their situation. Eileen's effort to keep the lines of conversation and information open has been a small but sustaining gesture, touching them at a time when some felt they had become anonymous faces in a crowd of military families. "When I finally did meet Jim, it was while the unit was down in Fort Meade waiting to be transferred," says Mary Locke, whose son talked about Neville after every reserve meeting. "Eileen was there. She was very nice because she could see the concern on my face. At a time like that, when you think nobody is concerned or caring, she did take the time to care."

For Eileen Neville the tie to the other waiting women has also been important. "We've kind of been a support for each other," she says.

Each mother says she is wary of thinking about how long the wait will be. In some houses, especially those with small children, Christmas will go on as normally as possible. But in Mary Locke's home the holiday will wait as long as her 17-year-old son must wait for his brother to return.

"Troy decorates my house for Christmas," she says. "He's very artistic, and I'm not just saying that because he's my son -- it's true."

And with him gone, she can find little holiday spirit.

"I'm not putting up any decorations this year," she says. "I will have my Christmas when Troy gets home."

Talking with the other women of such rearrangements is something Eileen Neville has come to depend on. Over the past three months she has learned the therapeutic value of conversation. "I've gotten to the point where I'll talk to anyone who wants to talk to me," she says. "It's like when someone has got cancer and you don't know what to say but they're dying just to talk to you. I'll tell the story six different times to six different people. That's all I have -- I don't have him."

The story she tells whoever will listen is one of frustration and adaptation, about the elaborate precautions taken to spare a 5-year-old pain, about the challenge of suddenly being a single parent, about realizing how much a partner's daily presence permeates every decision and action, from the most important to the most trivial.

She sees her daughter's sadness hidden in the code of a child's actions. It took weeks of Meghan's petulance after middle-of-the-night phone calls from Saudi Arabia for her to realize that the girl was certain her father called at night because he did not want to talk to her. Eileen told her no, that was not what was happening, and has made sure her husband calls sometimes just for Meghan.

Other challenges in their life trigger irritation rather than sorrow, such as Meghan's long streak of "meanness" toward Jim's father, who stayed with his daughter-in-law and granddaughter for two months after his son left. One day Meghan made a point of elaborately hiding his hammer to keep him from working around the house, and over the weeks treated him with the sort of pesky disdain only a 5-year-old can muster.

"She didn't want him here," her mother speculates. "She wanted her dad here, and I think she took some of her anger out on him."

But when she does misbehave and something other than sympathy is called for, Eileen must step in and replace the missing family disciplinarian, with the help of a video Jim left behind on which he talks to his child as he would if he were home.

"When she gets upset -- moody and mean," Eileen says, then turns to her daughter -- "Meghan, what does Mommy make you do?"

Meghan ducks her head so that her long blond hair shields her face from her mother's pointed questions but mutters, "Sit down and watch the movie."

"For how long?"

Pause. "Till it's over."

"And then what?"

No answer.

"Until she cries," the mother says. "Until she gets it all out."

It is hardly the perfect solution, but being half a couple is an imperfect business. "You know how you have that relationship with your husband and you talk things over?" Eileen says. "Even when you're mad you have that communication always and someone just to lean on."

In his absence, she has turned to Sharon. "She's been the one I take it all out on and yell at and hang up. I tell her to tell me, 'Stop feeling sorry for yourself, put your energy somewhere else.' If Jim was here, he'd be telling me the same thing."

Sharon has been forced into resourcefulness, trying stratagem after stratagem to cheer her friend. When Eileen said, "How am I going to get through my birthday, Thanksgiving, her birthday, Christmas?" Sharon says she told her to think about the fact that "this will be the only year she'll have to spend, just her and her daughter. Instead of thinking 'Jim's not here,' think of being together with Meghan. When she's older, when she's getting married, I bet she'll remember this Christmas as the one time she spent alone with her mother. It could bring them closer together."

Eileen's mother, May Schaefer, is another voice of realism, reminding her daughter frequently that she is not the first wife to see her husband shipped out. "Her father was gone in World War II and I was 17 and I was pregnant," Schaefer says now with the dour determination of a woman who takes pride in claiming this hardship -- and the survival of it -- for herself. But as for so many of her daughter's generation, war is something new for Eileen. Vietnam seems long, long ago, and the fact that Jim is actually in uniform and far away still shocks her.

Right now, of course, the United States is not at war, and Eileen's husband is safe at a transportation desk job. Even if fighting never begins and his life is not threatened, his absence is a rift in his family's life, and one that is perhaps made deeper by the closeness of this particular family.

Theirs is a world of blood ties and familiar landscapes, with grandmothers boasting of dozens of grandchildren and a web of cousins spun throughout Our Lady of Victory School. Even Sharon is married to a cousin of Jim's. Although they all live in and around Baltimore, they speak of their individual neighborhoods the way residents of a series of small, isolated towns do. The distance between Eileen's parents' house in East Baltimore and her home in Catonsville -- 20 minutes on the Baltimore Beltway -- is prohibitive, they say. To make the trip for a visit, says Sharon, "is a whole day's activity."

And if East Baltimore is that far, the Persian Gulf is immeasurably alien.

Eileen has learned ways to make what is far away seem closer. She wears her husband's clothes sometimes. For Meghan's birthday she shipped half a dozen birthday cards to Saudi Arabia so he could send them back to his child.

And there will be videotapes of everything to watch when he gets back: The tree, the school pageant, the holidays, all the days he missed.