In her suburban Virginia home, Bonnie Graves has been hard at work refurnishing her husband's study. Now it is replete with a bed, telephone, easy chair, good reading light, and spanking new tennis racquet. "Because," she says with a glint of joy, "he's the sort of person those things interest."
But Mrs. Graves is making no further plans for her husband's return -- at least, not yet.
"I don't even know what I'll wear when I meet him, whether I'll meet him alone or with the family. That'll depend on what John himself will want when we finally have a chance to talk."
Mrs. Graves, along with the families of the other 51 American hostages, is breathing a lot easier -- elated over the prospect of the return of the hostages. But the families are avoiding rigid planning. They want above all to make plenty of room for their loved ones to return to American life in ways that the hostages themselves will find easiest after their 443 days in captivity.
The 52 are individuals, they stress, and will have verym different adjustment needs in the coming months. The families are asking for sensitivity and calm from Americans. They want time to be alone with their loved ones before they undergo extensive exposure to the press. Sudden celebrations that pressure the returning Americans may not be in their best interest.
Not least of those needing room for adjustment are the families themselves. They have faced a daily captivity of sorts during the volatile 14 months of international posturing, offers, and counteroffers over the fate of their loved ones.
"It's been like bargaining for a Persian rug -- we've been kept in constant uncertainty about when, or if, a bargain could ever be struck," reflects Barbara Rosen, wife of Barry Rosen, the former press attache at the US Embassy in Tehran.
Still, few who have followed the families' efforts for the past year would doubt their capacity to take on the happier adjustments of the coming weeks. Even during months of darkest despair, they were acting courageously to maintain their own dignity and pave the way for a dignified outcome for the captives and the nation.
When Iran last month demanded a $24 billion price for the hostages, the families drew together in unanimous opposition to paying a "ransom" more than the amount of Iranian assets that were frozen in November 1979.
In addition to writing "religiously" to their hostage relatives, some regularly made it a point to send family pictures -- a ploy to keep reminding the Iranians (who screened the letters) that their prisoners were human and have families just as do the Iranians.
Even the hostages' children got into the act. The three children of US budget officer Bruce German, for example, wrote personal letters to Ayatollah Khomeini in November explaining why they miss their father. The letters were delivered to Iranian officials at the United Nations mission in New York.
The founding of the Family Liaison Action Group (FLAG) has provided a central monitoring office for the families at the State Department to keep them in touch with developments.
Some would have preferred a more independent FLAG operating outside the State Department and fighting more adamantly for the families' views. But it would have been hard for FLAG to represent the wide variety of views. And the organization has at least managed to provide coordination and contact with the government.
Perhaps hardest for the families personally has been coping with the constant uncertainties. Letters from their loved ones have been allowed out of Iran only sporadically.
On the one hand, there have been those comforting arrivals of letters and packages, such as the beautiful watercolor picture Charge d'Affaires Bruce Laingen painted of birds outside his cell window and sent to his wife, Penne.
On the other hand, letters are reaching the United States would often arrive out of the chronological order in which they were written; some were delayed many months.
While some families have received dozens of letters, others have received only a few. The 14 months have been particularly anxious for the Metrinko family of Olyphant, Pennsylvania.They have received almost no word from their son, Michael.In 1979 he narrowly escaped execution at the hands of anti-Shah revolutionary mobs near Tabriz, where he served in the US consulate, returned to the US Embassy in Tehran, only to be seized again with the other Americans.
The families have also had to cope with constant bombardment of reporters wanting to know their reactions to every slight shift of the wind in Iran. In November, the last time hopes for the return were raised, the wife of economics officer Bruce German received 17 calls on a single Sunday morning.
Other families have been nonplused by offers of thousands of dollars from newspapers for exclusive story rights. TV networks have offered all-expenses-paid trips to Washington, Germany, or even Iran -- as long asm the families would take along a reporter. A sister of Kathryn Koob, one of the two women hostages, was astonished some months ago to find a major TV network installing a telephone hot line on their property -- even before getting permission to do it -- according to another sister, Mrs. Mary Jane Engquist.
But through it all, the families have managed to keep alive a sober hopefulness and determination to see this ordeal through, whatever it takes. It is an attitude they still believe is necessary as attention shifts to receiving the hostage themselves.
"We're going to get 52 different views," says Mrs. Engquist. "We may not agree with all of them. There may be pent-up anger. But we've got to be patient, listen to them all, learn from them all."