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Driving down I-85 from the Charlotte airport to Greensboro, N.C., I put my hand on Ben’s leg and said, “Welcome home.”
“Does this feel like home to you?” he asked.
“Yes. It’s where we spent the majority of our marriage, it’s where we bought our first house, it’s where our children were born, it’s the first city we fell in love with together and found friends and fun things to do which we loved. It’s not where I grew up, but it feels like home to me now.”
Ben was brought straight from the hospital to the house his parents still live in, so I understand why Petoskey, Michigan, will always feel like home to him. I, on the other hand, was an Army brat. I was born in Germany and lived there and in Virginia before my father retired in South Carolina. Even though I lived in South Carolina from the age of 7 through college, true South Carolinians do not consider me one of their own. They’d even go so far as to say I was from Germany because that’s where I was born.
We met and were married in South Carolina, but Ben was soon transferred to an office in the Appalachian foothills in North Carolina. We stayed less than a year when his then-boss asked their department to relocate to Greensboro (the “Big City.”) I was newly pregnant so we made the move quickly. I wanted to get the move over with while I still felt ok and had time to settle in with the doctors who would deliver my baby. The rest of the department never did relocate, but we made it home.
Our daughter was stillborn in 2011, and buried in the infant’s section of a cemetery down the road from the church we were attending. I was devastated. Our new-found friends rallied around us, and we were well cared for. I was soon pregnant again, but buried myself in a new vinyl decorating business to avoid my heartache.
By the time our son, Whit, was born the business was actually seeing some success. We moved to a second home for the additional office space and found a new corner of Greensboro to love. That was where Whit was diagnosed with early signs of Autism and assigned a series of therapies. We spent 4 days a week at different therapy sessions for over a year trying to help Whit with his coordination, speech, and social issues.
The worst of it was that he hated me. Seriously.
Whit would kick and scream when I tried to get close to him, which meant that Ben was often home for lunch or working from home to help me take care of Whit. Ben did as much of the diapering, feeding, bathing, and playing as he was physically able to. I love that man and am still dumbfounded at how he changed his entire life to be more accessible to Whit. Again our church family rallied around us to support and love us and our child.
It took us a while to realize that we were in Greensboro for good. Ben was officially working from home, which meant we both needed home offices. After living there for 4 years we decided to buy our first house.
We saw a ton of homes, but accidentally fell in love with a foreclosure. We weren’t looking for a fixer upper, but it did happen to be a great value in an expensive neighborhood, so Ben saw the home as an investment.
It was in great condition structurally, but sat vacant for four years until we bought it. We had to do some work to rid the home of mold, termites, and water damage, and chose to gut the kitchen and master bathroom, sand and stain the wood floors, paint every wall, redo the patio, update the landscaping, change all the hardware and lighting fixtures, add a chair rail to the walls, and build a climbing wall in the garage.
The work took a year to complete but it was worth it. We weren’t planning on selling the home, so every decision was made according to my unique style. It was beautiful.
It wasn’t just a beautiful, custom-tailored home, it was where Whit began to blossom. He started attending the preschool outside of our neighborhood with teachers who were patient, firm, and understanding with him. He found friends at church and school who were similar to him who taught him empathy. He took pride in his own special places in our home, and even started to like me. He even started to love me. He was downgraded from Autism to Sensory Processing Disorder.
But it wasn’t for good.
Three years after moving in Ben had left his corporate job to take our quickly-growing home business to the next level, which included finding outside manufacturers. Since we weren’t responsible for our physical products anymore we decided to embark on our dream of traveling the world as a family.
We tried to keep the house and make it available for long-term rent, but our realtor advised against it. We sadly decided to sell, as it would create less stress were something to go wrong while we were abroad.
It took 5 months for the house to sell. When it finally did I was both excited to finally realize our dream of traveling and devastated to say goodbye to my pink office. My dark wooden floors. My huge bedroom with the steam shower we’d so painfully constructed out of a box.
We’ve loved living abroad. But it wasn’t without sacrifices. Dreams come at a price.
We not only left our home, we left friends who had become family. We left a school which had allowed Whit to blossom. We left our favorite restaurants. We left the familiarity of knowing exactly where we were. We left the first salon to finally understand my hair. We left the neighborhood library we would run to after dinner. We left the lake Whit first kayaked on. We left our daughter’s grave. We left so much. So, so much.
When our Christmas in America trip brought us to South Carolina we knew we had to make a visit to our beloved city.
Some wonderful friends opened their home for us to spend a few nights, others arranged a special drop-in for Whit’s friends (and ours) to meet with us, and more met us for lunch and dinner at the drop of a hat. We were able to go to 3 of our top restaurants and spent a long time driving around our favorite haunts.
Downtown Greensboro is truly one of the most adorable and lively downtowns I’ve seen in America. It’s amazing.
We also couldn’t help but drive past our old home.
Whit doesn’t have an attachment personality, which makes him the perfect child to travel with. He rarely forms attachments or obsessions to places, people, or even movies, so he’s happy to jump in somewhere new and then move on. Except for our white house. It’s literally the only thing he talks about. And we moved 18 months ago.
I thought I was having a panic attack when we turned into our old neighborhood and started driving the familiar roads. It felt so right and yet so wrong. Both mine and very much not mine. There’s the house with the Canadian flag, the house on the corner has new shutters, the neighbors got a new car. And yet there’s a reason I haven’t seen these things in over a year. Because we don’t live here anymore. We don’t belong here anymore.
We slowed to a crawl as we drove past our old house. Four times. There are two new cars in the driveway, a basketball hoop is in the backyard, and the open garage door shows a cluttered mess. I know this house, but it definitely isn’t my house.
We spend so much time awkwardly staring that a teenage boy stands at the door, phone in hand, ready to call the cops on the creepy SUV casing his home. Who does he think he is acting indignant in my home? Wait, why am I staring at a stranger’s house?
Driving away left a pit in my stomach. I loved our life in Greensboro. Every tiny aspect of it. But it’s not our life anymore.
You can go home again, but the question you’ll face is whether or not it still is home.