Photo: Tomsickova Tatyana/Shutterstock

Thoughts From a Homeless Military Brat

by Elizabeth Welsh Dec 8, 2010
Definitions of home
Home is where “our feet may leave, but not our hearts.”

So I started thinking. Must home be associated with a tangible place? defines home as “a house, apartment, or other shelter that is the usual residence of a person, family, or household.” Charles Dickens took a more eloquent route: “Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration.”

We never got emotionally attached to any of our houses; they were never really “ours.” They were identical to those surrounding them, and base regulations limited us from adding too many personal touches. With no height measurements scribbled onto walls, “house” was never synonymous with “home.”

Is our concept of home dependent on other people? Maya Angelou defines homes as “the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” Robert Frost, more the realist, described it as “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

For me, home was where my brothers and my parents were, not where my grandparents, cousins, or childhood friends resided. Being stationed far away and living on a government salary, we didn’t see family often – just for weddings, funerals, and the occasional vacation.

Is home in the past or present? Or is it the line that connects the two? T.S. Eliot defines home as “where one starts from” while Emily Dickenson defines home as “where thou art.”

When I told people I grew up in seven states and four countries, their response was always the same: “So which one do you consider home?” To keep things interesting as I got older, I changed my answer depending on who was asking. Germany was ideal when meeting travelers who respected someone “of the world”. DC was good for the opinionated sorts who seemed eager to move beyond pleasantries to politics and Bush.

Every so often, coincidence laughed in my face and someone would respond, “I’m from there, too! Do you remember when…?” – and they’d go on to ask about some big scandal that took place when we were kids, or whether I remembered these obscure back alleys. Feeling like a phony, I wasn’t sure whether to pretend I knew what they were referring to, or admit I had only lived there for a year so far.

Is home ever permanent? Oliver Wendell Holmes defines home as a place where “our feet may leave, but not our hearts,” but Hermann Hesse defines home as a place we never reach, but rather, “wherever friendly paths intersect, the whole world looks like home for a time.”

The best thing about the Air Force is making more friends than you can count, in more places than most people see in their lives. The worst thing is having your best memories confined to certain friends and places, who are never all around at the same time.

But what makes up for that is running into those friends sometime later in life, when you have both grown into completely different lives, and reminiscing about a home you once shared. If everything about home was permanent there wouldn’t be much to miss.

Home is an emotion

After the past few months, and struggling for the first time to create a home independent of my family, I’ve abandoned trying to define “home” as an address.

I’ve decided home is an emotion, not a place. An emotion that has varying amounts of love, happiness, usefulness, and security mixed in; an emotion that can travel and develop as you do. We can feel this emotion of “home” in many locations.

These days, when people ask which of my past residences I consider home, I skip the ten seconds of deciding on the best answer and simply say, I’ve moved a lot and each location has felt like home in some way. Sometimes I go into the “home is an emotion” speech, but that’s usually a bit much for people. Sometimes I just say, “All of them,” and ignore the skeptical looks.

But on lonely days abroad, I still question my conclusions. What if this more abstract, mobile concept of home is wrong? What if home can’t be found just anywhere, and can be lost if neglected? While my head fights this more stationary idea of home, my heart argues there may be something there, and I might never find a substitute elsewhere.

What is your definition of home? Are you sure?


Leave your thoughts on what “home” means to you in the comments below.

For more musings on what home is and isn’t, check out Lulled Mellow in Dahab: A Tale of New Beginnings, and to see how Matador members define “home”, see our Photo Essay: Coming Home With the Matador Community.

Discover Matador