Where Is ‘Home’ When Relocation Is a Way of Life?

Maybe it's more than a point on the map, reflects this military wife.
My Life Final Art

Illustration by Mary Ann Smith

I found home this past summer at the corner of 24th Street and Old Dominion Drive in Arlington.

I don’t live there. I live in a lovely house about 2 miles from that intersection—a house that, despite the cozy shelter it has provided my family for the past six years, hasn’t always felt exactly like home.

As a wandering young adult and then military wife and mom of 18 years, I found that the concept of home and the permanence that word evokes have long eluded me. There’s a saying in the subculture that is Navy life: Home is where the Navy sends us. You can buy coffee mugs and wall plaques imprinted with this sentence.

I appreciate the sentiment and the comfort it brings to so many of my friends, but it’s never rung true for me. Maybe it’s because my father has lived in the same house for almost 60 years, with the same home phone number. You can’t go anywhere with my dad in my hometown without running into someone he knows. I’ve been running errands for decades on each coast of this country and in the middle, in complete anonymity.

That’s why I think of where the Navy sends me as my current mailing address. Home is either Little Rock, Arkansas, where I grew up, or some fictional place I haven’t been to yet. Like a migratory bird, home for me is both where I came from and wherever I will eventually land. All these places in between have been nice, but not quite home.

I’m not complaining. Without the Navy, I might never have lived on a tiny island across the bay from San Diego where there are no mosquitoes, where I sometimes biked to the grocery store. That place exists in my memory like a pleasant dream, but it wasn’t my home.

Neither, I thought until recently, was Northern Virginia—even though if you tally the job that originally brought me to D.C., plus my husband’s four Navy tours here, we’ve both spent most of our adult lives inside the Beltway. But home is not a math equation with a tidy, indisputable answer.

If home is not a dwelling or a street address, then what and where is it, exactly?

In my experience, the opposite of home is not someplace far away. The opposite of home is loneliness. My husband’s job as a ship captain takes him away from us for long periods of time. We’re facing one such separation this year, and although I’ve managed alone before, I have plenty of anxiety about ushering our two boys through their last years of high school without their dad at the dinner table.

It’s not just the solo parenting that piques my nerves, but the sensation of being unmoored when my family is not together. When my husband is away, I’m not at home no matter where I am. This is an inconvenient realization for a military spouse.

I calm myself by thinking about the local father figures I could call upon if things go sideways with one of my boys during their dad’s absence. One is an unflappable father of six who has coached my boys in Little League. Another is a father of three and retired police officer—I’ll call him “Christopher” for the patron saint of travelers.

When I imagine worst-case scenarios with my boys—flashing lights and wreckage on the side of a road, trouble at school or with girls, any situation I don’t want to face alone—I remember there are people close by who love our family and will come to our rescue. These friends figuratively walk with me through my peaceful days. Knowing they exist, both in real life and in my iPhone contacts list, serves as a salve for my overactive imagination.

And then, one not-so-peaceful day last summer, a stranger failed to stop at a stop sign and one of the black-and-white, silent reels that plays in my head switched to four-color and full volume.

“Mom, I crashed the car,” said my then-16-year-old, freshly minted-driver son.

“Are you okay?!” I sort of screamed back at him through my phone. He said he was fine; no one was hurt. I grabbed my purse and took off for the 2400 block of Old Dominion Drive.

As I approached the scene and searched for a place to pull over, I noticed someone standing protectively beside my son, not far from our mangled car.

It was Christopher. He was there, just as I had imagined he might be in situations such as this one. I greeted him in the manner of George Bailey on the snowy bridge at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life when George says, “Bert, you know me?!”

Christopher gave me a warm, knowing smile, in the same way the owner of my dad’s favorite restaurant (whose grandmother was in the same sewing circle as my own) welcomes him when she hasn’t seen him in a while.

I hugged Christopher, in gratitude and to make sure he was real and that I wasn’t the only one who could see him. He had just happened to drive by minutes after my son was in the accident.

He stopped and stood sentry with my child until I could get there—to that place that doesn’t have a fixed address or exist in orders issued by the U.S. Navy, to that place where my family is known and loved.

Sarah P. Weeldreyer is a proud Navy wife, mother of two sons and one dog, and a freelance writer and editor. Read more of her work at sarahpweels.com.

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