Habits of a military dad
What living with him has taught me about home, family, and the definition of comfort.
Families often have designated spots in the living room, and for as long as I can remember my dad’s spot was on the floor. As kids, my sisters and I would lie next to him watching TV, copying his body position, arms crooked behind our necks, our left ankles resting on top of our right knees.
As we grew up, we moved up, to the couches and recliners. Through US Army relocations, our address changed and so did the furniture, but Dad kept his spot on the floor. We teased him for always choosing the least comfortable option.
After 28 years of active duty, it’s not a surprise that his military life spread to his home life. He sleeps anywhere; we often notice him, eyes closed, at the kitchen table. He drives for hours without stopping, even though he isn’t on a mission. He puts on shoes first thing in the morning and takes them off last thing at night; he is prepared to move fast, always. He carries a small duffel bag no matter the length of trip or baggage allowance. He keeps index cards in his shirt pocket for note-taking even though a smartphone could do it for him.
In the Army, Dad gravitated to the more stressful roles and dangerous locations. I wondered if he put himself up for those just as he’d offer to “take the floor” for movie night, but I never asked.
On his second assignment in Iraq, Dad lived in a shipping container called a CHU — an upgrade from where he slept during the first Gulf War. His only addition to his personal quarters was an IKEA armchair, and in it, he read our letters and a stack of history books. When his assignment was over, he left the chair for the next guy.
Back stateside, Dad returned to watching TV from his spot on the basement floor. This is where he is when I call home on Sundays, and though he listens as I chatter to Mom, our communication is mainly by e-mail — formal, concise, and filled with government acronyms.
Recently, I e-mailed asking about that IKEA chair. It was the first I’d ever heard of him having an attachment to anything. His reply was short and matter-of-fact. “It was much better than the camp chair I had been using.” That was it. No back story. No great detail about how he’d acquired it. I e-mailed questions about Iraq, wanting to know more about his job, more about him, but they went unanswered. He says he’ll write back someday. But I don’t remind him. It was never about the chair; it was just the start of a conversation that maybe we’ll get to finish someday.
There’s something to be learned from Dad’s pared-down lifestyle, and being too attached to material items is never a good thing. I try to keep this in mind as I set up my own house, as I unpack boxes and peruse Pinterest. If military life has taught me anything, it’s that floor plans and furniture change, but family doesn’t. If home is defined by who’s in it, we’re home wherever we are.
When my parents come to visit, I invite them to make themselves comfortable while I get drinks. Mom oohs and aahs over my sofa and nestles in, ready to relax after the long flight. I look over at Dad. He is inspecting the walls and surveying the doorways. I know I can’t push him to find comfort in the same way I do, whether that’s a chair or a conversation.
“Hey, Dad,” I say, pointing to the floor, “I picked a house with good carpet padding, just for you.”
With his shoes on his feet and index cards in his pocket, Dad stretches out on the floor of my living room, claiming his spot. Sometimes, the best seat in the house isn’t a seat at all.
Caitlin Huson is a writer in Washington. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.