What is Home?
In the past five years I have birthed three babies on three different continents. Yes, you heard that right. Asia in 2010, North America in 2012, and our most recent addition was born in Europe this past year. Only four continents to go! (I’m joking, I promise.) We are expats, and rather nomadic at that. But after a recent visit to the States, the concept of home has proved a bit confusing for my kids. And rightfully so. What is home when you’re an expat child in a family like ours?
I’m certainly no anthropologist, and, thankfully, my children have adjusted very well to all our recent moves. My kids’ confusion about home, I think, has more to do with the special relationship they feel towards two homes we have stayed at recently. We are particularly blessed to have grandparents living in some great—classic even—locations across the United States: Kansas and North Carolina. So my kids spent a week in the state famous for the line “there’s no place like home.” They spent another week in Mayberry. Yes, Mayberry—or rather Mount Airy, the birthplace of Andy Griffith and likely inspiration for his Mayberry. When you think archetypal, wholesome America it doesn’t get much better than Sheriff Taylor and Dorothy. And that’s where my kids had just spent two weeks. No wonder our little English town was having a hard time competing. Plus, grandparents will be grandparents and my kids were spoiled rotten.
Mount Airy seems to have made the strongest impression on my three-year-old. It’s just a small, unassuming little town at the foot of the Blue Ridge Parkway. But in many ways, Mount Airy is Mayberry. It’s a hometown you can step right into and remember the slower, simpler life of America’s perfect hometown. Walk down Main Street and you’ll get a feel for both the televised Mayberry of the 1960s and the modern, reinvigorated touristy Mayberry with Floyd’s Barber Shop and Opie’s Candy Store. But more than that, Mount Airy itself is still reminiscent of that quintessential American small town feel. The town exudes southern hospitality. But my kids still correct me when I slip and call it Mayberry. Mount Airy is special to them because it’s the place their grandma has chosen to call home.
The Memories of a Child
It’s been nearly a year since we picked up and moved across the giant pond. And this May was the first time we’d ventured back to the U.S. My kids are young; their memories of our previous homes are limited. My oldest has no memories of her birthplace, birth country, or birth continent. We accepted a new job and moved to the States when she was only nine-months-old. She loves the stories and adventures we recount to her and wants to see it for herself someday. She does remember the house we lived in when her brother was born. The house where she made her first neighborhood friends, started preschool, and rode her first bike. She remembers our deck and yard and all the playgrounds we frequented. Her brother, who has just recently turned three, has only vague recollections when shown pictures or videos, but no clear-cut memories like his sister. And it makes sense—he was just a baby and a toddler there.
First Time Back
We briefly visited our old house while we were stateside in May. But someone else lives there now and everything was different. My oldest begged to see her old room, but all my son cared about was enticing the tenants’ cat from under the table. We drove the jet lag away the following day as we embarked on the first stage of our Southeast road trip. We were headed to grandma’s house, a house we’d visited dozens of times in the past few years. As the sun set in the final stretch of our journey my daughter giddily serenaded us with a made-up song about arriving at grandma’s. She knew exactly where we were headed as we began our zigzagging descent down the mountain on her favorite “rollercoaster” road. All we had to do was drive across town and we’d be there.
The baby had awoken unhappily as we descended the mountain and his angry screams woke his lethargic brother. Angry screams, groggy yawns, giddy singing. That was the final ten minutes of an otherwise relatively peaceful day of driving. My soloist unbuckled and leapt from her booster seat the instant we turned into the driveway. As I scrambled to release the screamer, daddy unbuckled the sleepyhead who was slowly embracing his sister’s intractable excitement. He looked around hesitantly from the safety of his daddy’s arms and watched his sister burst past the carport and lunge at Grandma as the porch door swung open.
Now he was ready to get down. He followed his sister’s lead and hugged Grandma but then wasted no time disappearing into the house. While everyone introduced the baby to the wonders of Grandma’s house, my formerly sleepyhead was nowhere to be found. Concerned he was too quiet, the giddy one and I eventually set off to find him. And there he was in the guest bedroom—the room the kids always sleep in—a picture of contentment. He’d found the stash of toys and couldn’t even be bothered to look up when we entered the room. “Mommy, we’re at Grandma’s house,” he announced as his sister joined him on the floor. It wasn’t merely a statement of fact. His face and body language said it all. This was familiar. Finally, something he remembered.
The rest of the week is a joyous blur. Dinner was a given that first night. We walked down the road to the Dairy Center for the pink hot dogs. My oldest knew the drill and led the charge down the hill to the tiny shop. Her brother wasn’t as certain but happily followed. By lunch the next day, he too was enamored with the Dairy Center’s simple charm. He ate up our little traditions. We headed to Main Street to browse the shops—just like we always do. We put the baby in Mayberry’s jail for the first time. Mommy got her cherry jelly bellies from Opie’s Candy Shop. And we just enjoyed being tourists in grandma’s town. People held doors open as we shoved our gigantic stroller in and out of storefronts. Strangers greeted us. Store clerks smiled and chatted with us while my wild children weaved through aisles of fragile shelves.
It was an unusually hot week in May and rather than play inside, my children conned grandma into daily water fights. They frolicked through her yard with hoses and water guns and buckets. They played outside until the sun set and then begged for the Dairy Center again for dinner each night. It was a wonderful week. Unwelcomed insect bites, lost credit cards, and the biggest, most inopportune diaper blowout known to man couldn’t put a damper on our week.
Who Says You Can Only Have ONE Home?
It should have come as no surprise when a few weeks after our visit my growing boy looked up at me from our living room floor full of toys and nonchalantly requested to go home. “We are home, you silly boy,” was my playful response. The request continued all week—sometimes in fun, sometimes with just enough seriousness to make me feel bad. And then he finally shared home’s location: grandma’s house. He had found something familiar and cherished every second of it.
A month has passed and ‘home’ hasn’t come up again. It’s finally warm here and he spends his days outside having water fights with his sister and all is good in the world again. Instead of being concerned that my nomadic inclinations are depriving my children of a real home, I am thankful. I’m thankful that not only are we able to create a warm, caring home for our kids each place we move, but my kids get the best of both worlds. They also get Mayberry—quite literally—with each visit to grandma.