Finding a Place to Call Home

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

It took a while for my family to get used to the idea of me calling Florida “home.”

“But this is your home,” my dad would say, referring to the house in my tiny hometown of Holliston, Mass.

“Well, that’ll always be home,” I’d say. “It’s just not home right now.”

Home. Is it the place where you live now, the place where you grew up, or the place where you want to be but can’t ever seem to find?

I grew up in a small, one-floor house that’s flooded with childhood memories. The maple tree in the front yard where I used to “spy” on my neighbors and read daily. The walkway that was more often than not covered in colored chalk creations. The wooden panel in my bedroom where my mom marked my height from age 3 to age 11.

Those are all memories that I still think about when I drive by that old house, which is about two miles away from the house where we moved when I was 13.

The two houses I grew up in were far different from the place I moved to in Clearwater, Fla., after graduating from college. In Clearwater, I lived in a condominium at the intersection of two major roadways. The people living there kept to themselves for the most part, and some would even put their heads down when they came in contact with passerby. I would go “home” after work, close the door, then enter into my own little world.

I was part of a community but not connected to it. Though I lived in Clearwater, I didn’t work or play there. Work was a half hour away in St. Petersburg, as were friends there and in Tampa. Since I lived off Highway 19, I couldn’t easily go for a walk or a run as I could in college and in Massachusetts.

Now I can, though. After returning from Dallas, where I interned at The Dallas Morning News for three months, I moved to a garage apartment in St. Petersburg last November. I now live a mere three miles from downtown and only about 10 minutes away from my good friends in the area.

A sweet older couple owns the house that’s connected to my garage apartment, and I’m in a neighborhood where I can walk around and meet other people. I recently met a girl down the street who I run with, and I met a mother and daughter who live next door after stopping at their yard sale and buying a little wooden desk.

Of course, living in a neighborhood isn’t always glamorous. We all have them — those neighbors who start mowing their lawn at 8 a.m. on Saturdays, who leave the dog outside for far too long until it barks itself to sleep, or who insist on talking to you for 20 minutes every time you get out of your car.

I’ve had my share of annoying neighbors, but the neighbors who live behind me are perhaps the rowdiest group of guys I’ve ever heard. On weekends, there are often five or more cars parked outside their tiny house, which has a backyard that’s filled with trash, boats, a hot tub … and a limo. The limo just sits there, though the guys did use it on Super Bowl Sunday.

There is a slab of wood propped up on a tire, which they light on fire before jumping over it on a moped. During parties, people lean against the limo and make out, not knowing that I’m peeking through my blinds to get a look at the chaos. You can’t help but want to look at what the commotion is all about when you hear trucks laying rubber or continuous bangs outside your apartment.

The bangs, I’ve learned, come from the guys ramming their golf cart into the boats in their backyard. The noise is occasionally accompanied by vibrations, which shake the apartment to the beat of whatever music they’re blaring in their cars. These neighbors sound disruptive, but they’re more entertaining than anything else.

Now that I feel situated in my new apartment and have gotten used to the “entertainment,” I’ve made a conscious effort to feel more connected to St. Petersburg. I have doctors here, a bank, a yoga studio, a hairdresser, a veteranarian, a laundromat. And I have a great group of friends who I regularly spend time with and who help me strike a better balance between work and play.

We all need to have this sense of belongingness, a feeling that we have a place we can call home, even if it’s not the home we’ve known or the one we see ourselves inhabiting 10 years from now. A desire to feel more connected to the community we work and live in is no doubt easier when it’s attached to a feeling of permanency. Now that I have a full-time job in St. Petersburg as opposed to a fellowship, I know that I am going to live in St. Pete for at least another year or two and therefore have invested the time to establish myself here.

When I read the newspaper now, the names of stores and people mean more to me. I am more concerned when I hear about shootings or break-ins and more interested in write-ups of local restaurants or coffee shops. Hey, that’s only 10 blocks down the street, I think. I’ll have to check it out. Having a sense of where things are located is a good indicator that you’ve developed a sense of place. I no longer get lost in St. Pete and don’t need my handy GPS, which has saved me more times than I’d like to admit.

What’s missing, really, from my new home is family. I’m lucky enough to have a set of surrogate parents and supportive colleagues here, but living alone is nevertheless an adjustment. In college, I had roommates for support, and my dad was a mere hour away. I didn’t have to think about rent payments, 401 (k) plans, insurance or many of those other  scary “adult things.”  So many times, I’ve thought, wow, my dad would have just done this for me in the past. Now I have to do it myself.

Not relying on dad, though, has made me more confident in my own abilities. I’ll admit, I’ve become quite skilled at putting together furniture and of somehow making sense of those crappy directions that come with TV stands, bookcases, tables, etc. I’ve become good at taking care of my car rather than just assuming that pops will take it to the mechanic when it needs an oil change or a headlight replacement. And I’ve become good at learning that it’s OK to admit you can’t do it all on your own. Living alone, I’m learning, doesn’t mean you have to be alone; part of feeling “at home” is feeling comfortable enough to call on friends, neighbors and surrogate parents for help.

I was talking with my dad on the phone today about all of this and started feeling nostalgic for Massachusetts, where he, my grandmother and my best friends all live. Save for a few extra dust balls, my room in Holliston is just as it was when I left it — a sign of my dad’s desire to keep a piece of me there, to let me know that I can always call that house home.

“I’m glad you feel so comfortable there in Florida,” my dad told me during our phone conversation. “That’s not a bad place to call home.”

“No, you know, it’s really not …”

I’m sure I’ll move a few more times before I really “settle down.” For right now, though, I’m content here in St. Pete. I don’t know if home is where the heart is, but I know that for right now, home is here.