Sense of home can be elusive for military retirees

Sense of home can be elusive for military retirees

by Lisa Smith Molinari
The Meat and Potatoes of Life

Waiting for the McQuaid’s Market cashier to check the price of an item, I watched as the familiar faces of local postal workers, construction workers and landscapers came in to grab something for lunch. In the adjoining checkout aisle, they chatted casually with the other cashier.

“Hey, [Jack, Betty, Dave] how’ve you been?” the young cashier said.

“Not bad, how ’bout yourself?” the customers replied.

I was envious.

Five years ago, my husband, Francis, retired from the Navy after 28 years on active duty and many PCS moves. We bought a house in a charming Rhode Island village, intending to finally put down roots and become part of the local community. We met neighbors, attended church, took part in special events and joined Rotary, American Legion, VFW, Historical Society, Ladies Golf League (me) and Stiff Guy Yoga (Francis).

But, as I waited and watched in our village market that day, I realized that no one in the store knew who I was.

My mind wandered to my childhood hometown 500 miles away.

At age 8, I’d pedal my yellow Schwinn as fast as my stubby legs could propel me down Chestnut Street in my neighborhood. Just before the S-curve where the street joined North Seventh before continuing right on its way eastward, I’d look for traffic. Seeing no cars, I’d whiz by the stop sign at top speed. Feeling the slope of the hill take over my momentum, I’d lift my hands from the handlebars and stand on the pedals.

With my arms raised, my knees locked and my sandy blonde pigtails aloft, I’d fly. I’d traverse the Chestnut Street S-curve with ease, using only the weight of my husky yet compact frame to lean my yellow Schwinn left then right along the S-curve.

On my way home, I’d often stop at the Stankowitz’s maple tree. I’d climbed the tree a thousand times and had memorized the exact gestures needed to lift myself into its branches. I’d place my left hand in the crook where a low bough met the trunk and my right Converse-shoe-ed foot on a knot in the trunk. With one heave, I’d swing myself upward, hooking my legs over the next branch, and using my momentum to shift myself smoothly into a seated position.

From my well-worn perch in the tree, I’d look over the familiar scene of my neighborhood domain. The Butterbaugh house where we’d suck on sour stalks of wild rhubarb. The school bus stop where kids ran amok every morning. The steep part of the sidewalk, where boys would jump the concrete stairs on bikes, skateboards and sleds. The Schok’s backyard where we played kick the can. The spooky Victorian house on North Ninth, where an old lady gave us lots of candy every Halloween.

Later, in my teen years, our family upgraded to a brick ranch on the outskirts of town. Too old for my yellow Schwinn, I’d drive my powder blue Volkswagen Beetle from our house to high school, church, Patti’s house, the mall and my babysitting job. By that time, I knew the streets like the back of my hand, chugging along self-assuredly between familiar streetlights and stop signs.

In that place — my hometown — I was never lost.

Watching the customers in McQuaid’s Market, I longed for that sense of groundedness I’d had during childhood, when I knew exactly where I was and was known by others. I wondered, can military retirees like us ever achieve the security that comes with being truly local?

“Hey, aren’t you Francis’ wife?” the young cashier suddenly interrupted my thoughts. “We met in town over the summer.”

“Yes!” I burst out, so happy to be recognized. “I’m Lisa, nice to see you again!”

“I’m Matt, great to see you, too,” he said with a smile. We chatted for a minute or two while my cashier bagged my items and handed me a receipt.

On my way out the door, I waved and yelled a bit too enthusiastically, “Bye, Matt!”

“Bye, Lisa!” he called back.

I took a right on West Street out of the parking lot, feeling confident that I’d find my way home.
Read more at the website and in Lisa’s book, “The Meat and Potatoes of Life: My True Lit Com.” Email:

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