Photo: Tomsickova Tatyana/Shutterstock

Thoughts From a Homeless Military Brat

by Elizabeth Welsh Dec 8, 2010
Having grown up in seven states and four countries, Elizabeth Welsh wonders whether home is something you carry with you, or if it must be anchored in space.

Dad pointed at the Welcome to Mississippi sign, “Two more days until Colorado, guys!” None of the other five people in the car, nor the two Labrador retrievers, took much notice. A couple glances in the general direction of the sign, someone crunching on Doritos, and some wordless mumbles that were in between “Sleeping in a van sucks” and “I’m kind of excited, but I’m not going to admit it because I wasn’t ready to leave Georgia yet.”

From the far, back left corner of the mini van, I adjusted my bifocal glasses and yelled out to Mark, the least likely to respond with sarcasm, “Marko, when new friends ask you where you’re from, what do you say?”

The oldest, wisest, and nicest of my three older brothers thought a minute then turned around from the front seat. “I usually say wherever we just moved from, I think that’s all they are looking for.”

Not convinced, I turned to John (first in terms of height, second in terms of age) and asked the same question. No response. “Honey, he’s sleeping.”

I directed my question at Matthew (the closest to me in age) by chucking a Starburst at the back of his head. “Yeah, like I’m going to answer you now,” he replied calmly.

“Mom, what about you?”
New York,” she replied from the middle seat, her default position through having three sons bigger than her. A hint of a Long Island accent revealed in the “Yowuk.” She said it with an odd mix of pride and reluctance.

“But you haven’t lived there since college? And your parents are selling their house to move to Florida?”

“Home’s not always where you live or where you hope to live, honey. It kind of just happens to you – sometimes home is home whether you choose it or not.”

No matter how distant or trivial the memories were, they were memories I didn’t share and they made me feel disconnected.

Deciding to let that brew a while, to come back to it later whilst listening to my Walkman, I turned to the last interviewee. “And you, Dad? Texas?”

“Definitely, Texas. It’s where I grew up and where I want to grow old. Family, good steak, and golf-friendly weather more than half of the year, not sure what else I could want,” said the man who’s flown jets at the speed of sound over four continents and through Operation Desert Storm. (If I’d been older and wittier, I would have responded that he might also want “World peace.”)

“What do you say, honey?” Damn. I knew that was coming.

“I steal that quote from our key rack, ‘Home is where the Air Force sends you,’ and if they don’t like that answer I say Georgia. We have lived there the longest so far.”

Unshared memories

As a fighter pilot in the Air Force and the son of a fighter pilot in the Air Force, my dad had no misconceptions about what his career would mean for him and his family. He and my mom worked hard to help us adapt to our mobile lifestyle, which had us on the move every two years. We quickly learned how to make friends out of anyone and everyone, and reveled in the attention of being “the new kid.”

But no matter how carefully I secured a spot in a new community, there were still moments when I was reminded I’d always be an outsider to some extent.
— “Oh, you didn’t know about Jenny’s sister? I remember Jenny coming to play at my house so she didn’t have to see her come home from the hospital.”
— “You never got to see the old skating rink did you? We used to spend every Friday there.”

No matter how distant or trivial the memories were, they were memories I didn’t share and they made me feel disconnected. They seemed so essential to being a part of this “home,” and they contributed to the sense of relief I felt when moving somewhere new. Maybe the new town wouldn’t have so many memories.

When I’d start a conversation about home, my parents would look at me, then each other, debating whether to counsel or humor me. I imagined they were telepathically asking each other, “Is she upset or just curious?” It wasn’t until I graduated from college six months ago that realized I was both: I was upset that I didn’t feel qualified enough in any location to call it home, and curious that the topic didn’t seem to throw anyone but me into a tailspin.

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