What does "home" mean to you? Is it a person? A place? Or a feeling you can't quite explain?
As a child growing up in the Carolinas, home for me was all of those things. But mostly it meant being with people I loved.
The place varied: It was a house by a railroad track where I lived with my mother and her husband and my two little brothers.
It was a farm in the mountains where my dad lived with his parents, and I often visited on weekends and in summer.
Or it was my grandparents' house on the main street of a small town, where my mother and brothers and I took refuge when things weren't good with my stepdad.
And the feeling? All I can tell you is this: Being with people I loved — in good times or bad, safe or afraid, happy or sad — always made me feel at home.
It still does.
It also helped to have a dog, a stray I called Rin, short for the TV dog, Rin Tin Tin. It's hard to feel homeless with a dog. Rin's been gone for years, but just to think of him makes me smile.
Yesterday, I left the home I share with my husband in Carmel Valley, Calif., and boarded an Amtrak train to travel nearly 400 miles north to visit my son and his wife and their 2-year-old Jonah, and the baby, who is due any day.
Once on board, I settled into a "roomette" (picture an oversize coffin) where I would spend the next 10 1/2 hours (departure at 6:30 p.m., arrival at 5 a.m.) in privacy, watching the world zip by and trying (with little luck) to sleep.
Seconds before the train left the station, I saw my husband on the platform wildly waving goodbye with both arms.
Laughing, I waved back and realized, as I often do, how I always see home in his eyes.
Then the whistle blew, the train lurched forward and I was on my way. An attendant came by to take my order for dinner. A short while later she was back with a plate of braised beef with polenta, a salad and a "blondie" for dessert. I was glad to get it.
After dinner, she came back to pull the two facing seats into a fairly decent single bed. At some point, I drifted off and dreamed I was a little girl again, in the house by the railroad track.
Back then, I loved to climb up in an apple tree and wait for the train to go by. When I spotted the engineer, I'd yank my arm up and down and he would blow the whistle just for me.
Then I'd count the passing cars and wonder how it would feel to get on board and go wherever it might take me.
Imagine my surprise to wake in the wee hours of the morning and realize I wasn't dreaming. The whistle was real. I was on board. And the train was taking me to yet another home — one I always find in the eyes of my children and grandchildren.
When my kids were growing up, I often told them their home would always be with me. But no matter how far they roamed, I said — to college or marriage or strange, foreign places like Kathmandu or California — they would always be at home.
Why? Because home is a feeling. We carry it with us wherever we go. We see it in the eyes of our loved ones, or even in the eyes of a dog. But we see it most clearly in the mirror.
The sun wasn't up yet when we pulled into Dunsmuir. The attendant helped me drag my bags off the train. Only a few people were waiting at the station, including one fellow who lay snoring on a bench and seemed in no hurry to leave.
Suddenly, I was wrapped in a bear hug. I'd know it anywhere. When my boys hug you, you know you've been hugged.
"Hey, Mama," said my oldest, with his beautiful grin. He took my bags in one arm, me in the other, and we walked to his car.
"Jonah's still sleeping," he said, "but he'll be up soon and he'll be so excited to see you!"
So we drove to Jonah's house.
And I was home.
Sharon Randall is the author of "The World and Then Some." She can be reached at P.O. Box 922, Carmel Valley CA 93924 or by email at [email protected].