I.

The bay in my backyard always looked its most vulnerable at low tide. That’s when I loved it best, because it mirrored me. I ventured across Bayshore Boulevard, past the generous expanse of grass separating the sidewalk from a shelf of riprap. Spreading my arms as if buoyed by the air, I climbed carefully over the rocks that protected the shoreline from water. The boulders’ jagged edges would teach me some respect if I slipped. 

 

Climbing down toward the shoreline, I saw a brown crab, bigger than my hand, had met its demise: it lay on its back with its many legs splayed toward the waning sun. The ugly creatures sometimes crowded the beach by dozens. When they weren’t flipped over, they had a flatly domed shell somewhat like biking headgear, with a long, spiny tail extending from their back end. In my mind, I called them helmet crabs, but someone once told me they were actually Atlantic horseshoe crabs. 

 

The naked, sandy shore extended just beyond the rocks. That was my destination. In this state, the intertidal zone reminded me of a rumpled bed with the covers yanked off. The body of Tampa Bay appears brownish green up close, but the Florida sun makes it glitter bright blue from a distance. That day, it was the water’s absence that lured me away from my book and out of the apartment. 

 

I stepped onto the beach. The saturated ground yielded beneath my Pro-Keds with a muffled squelch. Then I waited. A few feet away, tidewater lapped: a whoosh forth and then a long drag back. I hated the outdoors but could stand there amid the constant movement of the bay until time became irrelevant. I looked down at my feet. They wouldn’t sink far into the wet sand, I knew, but I would still have to rinse my shoes or risk a scolding from my mother. 

 

Not much longer, and my patience was rewarded. A sand crab emerged sideways from a tiny hole in the beach left of my foot. Another one, feeling the coast was clear of danger, burrowed out in front of me. Soon enough other members of the Lilliputian crab community peeked out. A statuesque Gulliver in their midst, I observed them skittering backward this way and that, never crossing my shoes. 

 

The streetlamps flickered on, casting orange light toward Bayshore Boulevard. I could see the back door of my family’s apartment, the square, two-story building painted in the ubiquitous tan of every building on MacDill Air Force Base. When I moved my feet, the sand crabs dug themselves back to safety. It was like they were never there. 

*****

II.

Every morning, I shuffle into Iman’s room and gently shake her through the unicorn sleeping bag thrown across her bed. She is the most difficult of my two girls to awaken, so I save her for last. 

 

“Button Pie, Button Pie,” I singsong. “Where is my Button Pie?” 

 

Her limbs don’t move but I see her eyes squeeze. At three, her cheeks still show the last vestiges of a baby’s chubby jowls. I press my lips into her face. Iman tunnels deeper into the plush fabric and I envy her. This calls for harsher measures. Striding over to the window, I pull the curtains aside to let the sunlight invade her sleep. She throws an arm across her face, thoroughly a threenager who detests being roused. 

 

“It’s time to get up, Iman. I gotta go make your breakfast,” I say. The song in my voice has ended. The curt edge makes her eyes open even as she whines her displeasure. 

 

My morning is a bustle of nagging two children who are independent enough to do many things on their own but too immature to do them without being nagged. The punishment for my seven-year-old, Samira, missing the bus: I will have to chauffeur her to school. To be clear, I am the one it would punish. I can afford to drive Iman to her half-day preschool late, but I don’t, pretending to my daughters and myself that there is an invisible hand pushing us all out the door by 8:45. I scoop up the sleeping baby from his long-limbed sprawl across my bed, hoping I can snap him into his car seat in the van without waking him up. After Samira hops onto the bus, I pull out of the driveway. 

 

The county-run preschool is based in a community center in Fort Washington, Maryland, about fifteen minutes away from our home in Temple Hills. My husband and I moved our growing family to Prince George’s County from neighboring Montgomery County in 2018 because PG County was more affordable. But no housing in the DC metro area can objectively be called “affordable.” With the mortgage too damn high, I was grateful for a preschool with tuition less than $200 monthly. We couldn’t afford childcare otherwise. I desperately needed it. 

 

After we pull up to the community center, I unlatch buckles and unload the kids. First Iman, then Seth, who awakens when the van door slides open. Cars block the curb. A stooped, elderly gentleman just outside the entrance paces himself moving his rolling walker toward the pick-up point. 

 

It’s been ingrained in me to “speak” when I pass other Black people for so long that I sometimes forget it’s a cultural marker. It’s reflexive, like blinking. 

 

“Good morning. How are you today?” I ask him. His voice is gruff but strong in his greeting. Our passing encounters never last long enough for me to ask him his name without waylaying his trek to the curb. 

 

“Say ‘good morning,’” I remind my daughter. She dutifully complies.

 

A few months back, I set about making sure Iman spoke, too. She is a stubborn preschooler and I generally respect that. But it felt … improper for her not to acknowledge the elders whose faces greet her when the door swings open. And there are a lot of them. 

 

Hollyoak Community Center is also the home of a sixty-and-up seniors program, which means the demographics of the people we encounter there seesaw from the very old to the very young. The seniors can use the exercise equipment away from the flexing of youthful gym rats. They often host socials and small showcases, holding luncheons on special occasions. 

 

Today, tables holding the seniors’ craft wares for sale crowd the hall leading to the preschool room. Seth toddles as fast as his little legs will allow. Our slow pace gives the older women stationed behind their crafts the chance to coo at my “Little Man.” He is impervious, so I thank them on his behalf. One elder’s eyes light up at the sight of him. 

 

“How old is he?” she asks. 

 

“He’s thirteen months,” I respond. I am already inching toward the kids’ room, which is just a few feet away. 

 

“Oh, hold on. I have something for him,” she cries. I stand still. The table set up before her was entirely covered in hand-knit blankets in various colors. She rifles through a plastic bag full of more blankets, muttering to herself about which ones will and won’t be proper for a boy. “This one!” She beams, holding aloft a beautiful lavender, cream, and brown color-blocked blankie. 

 

“Oh, my goodness, thank you! This is beautiful. You don’t have to do this,” I stammer. 

 

She dismisses my protest with a wave of her hand and a cluck of her tongue. Noticing Iman, she bids me wait again until she hands me an ombre pink blanket. 

 

“These are for the babies,” she says firmly. “I give them to the children at my church all the time.” We were not at church but she spoke to us like family. 

 

I had left my stupid wallet in the car. Maybe I can get her information and send her something to thank her more adequately. 

 

“I’m Ms. Virginia Hamilton,” she tells me when I ask her name. I cradle Mother Hamilton’s gift as if I have never felt warmth before. 

*****

III.

489 Paul Smith Drive, Apartment D, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. This was the first address I ever memorized, only by singing it, because that was the way I remembered everything when I was five. It’s the only address that stuck out of all the places we lived in Tampa. 

 

My mother and I moved to Tampa because my stepfather, whom she’d met in the Army when they were both stationed in Stuttgart, Germany, received orders to MacDill. She gave birth to my brother Jamil overseas shortly before we became Floridians. 

 

Not much remains of my organic recall from our 1987 arrival in the place I would come to call my hometown. Mommy drove a sandy brown 1985 Chevy Cavalier at the time. I know this because I kept a broken part of its back seat buckle as a keepsake after the car was totaled in an accident. My biological father’s mom, Grandma Lennye, had loved my mother enough to cosign the car loan while my parents were divorcing. 

 

Other facts of my life before that time, and people, have less tangible associations for me. I was not born at MacDill, but my memory was. We would live there during two stretches of my childhood: from 1987 to 1992, and from 1995 to 1998. The base was the first location I called home once I realized my mother was not a dwelling place, but a person. 

 

We didn’t live on base at first. When we initially arrived in Tampa, we were put on a waiting list until a unit on MacDill became available. The four of us—Mommy, Daddy, Jamil, and I—holed up temporarily in a gray stucco apartment complex off S. Dale Mabry Highway until our number came up. 

 

Family housing is a coveted commodity among service members because it is provided for free. Theoretically, you could live on base without ever having to leave for the amenities you needed. MacDill had Tinker Elementary school, a grocery store (Commissary), department store (Base Exchange), post office, movie theater, library, bowling alley, fitness center, golf course, parks, and beaches. There is a reason the base has its own ZIP Code: 33621.

 

I could sing myself home if I ever got lost: 489 Paul Smith Drive, Apartment D. The first place I remember my neighbors; knocking on the brown door adjacent to ours to ask if I could play with Angie and her Super Nintendo; pausing a conversation outdoors until the roar of fighter jets flying overhead waned to a distant drone; the window I pressed my dripping nose against each time another friend moved away; the ebb and flow of Tampa Bay across the street that taught me water always returns but people do not. 

 

I could not have known so young that MacDill could never be a home, only a dwelling place. 

*****

IV.

Newly freed from school for the summer, I would cross Bayshore midday to sit among the rocks and think or write. Tampa Bay’s salty, sulfuric funk was oddly comforting. I could breathe it in deeply. During my jaunts, I’d inevitably encounter a straggling horseshoe crab. As ocean dwellers, they only came ashore to mate during the weeks when Tampa’s bearably hot May transitioned to June’s insufferable heat. On full moon nights, they’d cluster together on the beach like abandoned helmets. They seemed to never stop moving; all ten of their legs constantly pushing for purchase against slick brown carapaces. Their collective mating was a slow grind. Their pointy telsons were unable to flip them back from their shell to their feet. Unlucky horseshoe crabs baked gills-up in the sun by the dozens. 

 

It seemed unfair to compare horseshoe crabs to the adorable miniature sand crabs they shared the beach with. But I couldn’t help it. The odd animals had a fairly grotesque appearance. Maybe this is because they are not actually crabs, but members of a different order of arthropod than true crustaceans. Their closest animal relative is a blood-sucking tick. “Horseshoe crab” is a moniker given to them by humans too lazy to tell the truth. When you look more closely at them, noticing their widely spaced eyes, the spines lining their hinged abdomens, the fleshy book gills underneath—you might wonder how you ever thought they were crabs at all. How frightening they likely appear to those two-inch-wide sand crabs, who live in the thick of MacDill’s eastern coastline all year-round. I wonder if the sand crabs dart furtively back in their hidey holes when the horseshoe crabs’ orgy begins. Or maybe the crabs simply go about their crustacean business and wait out the seasonal interlopers. The imposters will be gone soon; their only homes are their own bodies. Watching them on the coast of a military base, I understood them all too well. 

*****

V.

The day we finally move into our new house in Temple Hills, a Black woman with short, curly, salt-and-pepper hair bustles over from across the street to meet me. I let the children out of their car seats and fix my face for company. Our neighbor lives in a stately brick home with lots of windows, one of which she has certainly been peering out of and watching us schlep our belongings for weeks, car load by car load.

 

“Hi, I’m Ms. Lynn. Welcome to the neighborhood! What’s your name, baby?” Her phrasing reminds me that Maryland is also the South, though I had never thought so when I lived below the Mason-Dixon. 

 

“I’m Dara. This Samira, Iman, and baby yet-to-be-named.” I place my hand on my belly. 

 

“You know, I was wondering if this place had been sold. I was going to call the previous owner, Brandon, and let him know there were strange cars parked in his driveway,” Ms. Lynn chitchats. I nod, smile, and keep one eye on my kids. She prattles on about being home often because she is the caretaker for her disabled sister. 

 

“Anyway,” she continues, “let me give you my number if you ever need it. I know just about everything that goes on around here.” She hugs me and it does not feel awkward despite my oblong abdomen. 

 

The next day, sunlight streams into the house too early because we do not yet have curtains hung. I can see our next-door neighbor’s backyard laundry line through the dining room window. It does not take long for him to come by, either. 

 

Mr. Finley is a retired gentleman we wave to while he is outside cutting overgrown branches on a bush bordering our two yards. The silver glint of a short Afro peeks from beneath his dad hat. 

 

“I’ve lived in this house for almost fifty years. Used to know the guy, Paul, who lived here since the ’60s, ’til he died,” he says. “The place on the other side of yours used to be owned by his sister, and that’s why the backyards have that connecting sidewalk and gate. They just went back and forth whenever. You ever have a question about your house, just come on over.” 

 

Mr. Finley digs in his pocket and hands me a business card. “Oh, and my son owns a lawn business and cuts my grass, if you need somebody to cut yours.” Hint, hint. 

 

I thank him and watch him return to wrestle with his shrubs. 

*****

VI.

During the eight years I lived on MacDill for my stepfather’s two assignments there, I never noticed the absence of the elderly in base housing. The 2000 census determined that no adult over the age of sixty-five lived there at the time. Certainly, military family housing is a microcosm of young and younger people; the American war machine requires youthful blood to oil its gears. I would see veteran retirees working at the Commissary, their bluish-white hair coiffed into clouds framing their faces. They drove their workday beaters off-base past the armed gate guards every evening. But their time dwelling on the installation had passed.

 

I have come to understand, living in a predominantly Black Maryland community of diverse age groups, that elders are the true institutions of neighborhoods. Buildings in various stages of gentrification get boarded up and razed, or resurrected into something shinier but soulless. But they tell very little of the people who once occupied their walls. Only a native or a lifer can summon the names of the human collateral of a changing city. 

 

MacDill had no oral history of its people because MacDill had no elders. What is lost when a community’s collective memory is only as old as that of a toddler’s? When the people who treasure all the stories in their chests reside outside the city gates?

 

Perhaps this was why in 2019, eighty years after the founding of the base, its authorities were alerted to the possibility of a lost Black cemetery on base property. Nothing is developed on top of that tangle of brush and woods on the installation’s northwest edge. But nothing sacred is marked, either. Before the military purchased the land MacDill sits on, parts of the peninsula belonged to Port Tampa City, where many Black workers lived in the early 1900s. Once they gave up the ghost, they were buried in segregated cemeteries so they would not disturb the peace of dead white folks. Such a “colored cemetery” might rest a paltry few miles out of sight and mind from where I played. 

 

No one on MacDill knew of a potential Port Tampa City colored cemetery. On punchy write-ups of pre-World War II base history, Air Force reporters made no mention of the town or its people. MacDill’s popular history is that of aircraft, of landing strips, of debarkations, of wars and rumors of them. The Tampa Bay History Center notified the military after discovering other “lost” Black cemeteries throughout Tampa. But a grave cannot be misplaced, unlike the priorities of white landowners. Now that records have yielded all the information possible, researchers must go into Tampa communities, the ones with living, breathing institutions, to create a portrait of the people who could be buried. And even so, the dead might never be found using technology without disturbing the earth. Roots surround them thick and deep. 

*****

VII. 

Whenever people in Maryland ask me where I am from, I lie. I tell myself, “No one wants to hear about your existential displacement crisis. They just want to know why you sound like an outsider.” This is when I mention I am from Tampa, and that is close enough to the truth to carry on. 

 

A friend of mine explained to me that if you recklessly claim to be from Chicago, another Chicagoan will ask you, “What high school did you go to?” 

 

I will never pass this test anywhere. 

 

The insularity of living on MacDill as a child meant I had neither inclination nor opportunity to get to know the history of the city I claimed. In terms of economic and human resources, MacDill feeds Tampa, and feeds off of Tampa, but it is not Tampa. The turnover rate of personnel and families on a military base is somewhere between two to three years. Residents engage in a form of occupation that does not ask what—or who—came before they arrived. The stints are dizzyingly brief periods of acculturation, adaptation, and then relocation.

 

For people unfamiliar with the Tampa Bay area, I sound like a Tampanian. I only have to make small talk about terrible weather “up North” to convince them. 

 

“I never had to wear a scarf or snow boots growing up,” I say, regaling Marylanders with tales of riding a new bike bare armed on Christmas Day. Weather is, after all, the feature that Florida is best known for. 

 

I can also dish Floridian nostalgia with the best of my fellow Sunshine State lovers. But don’t ask me which sides of Tampa are the Black sides of town or which high schools are the Black ones. It doesn’t take much more than a quick glance under my shell to determine I am no true crustacean. Such a lazy liar. 

 

I am not from Tampa. But no one is ever really “from” MacDill, either. 

 

I never learned how to satisfy myself by making a home of my own body. I do not know how it feels to exist without longing for a place I once loved, a place I have mistakenly called home. MacDill gave me the illusion of community without the fullness of one. So there is no one left who can call out my name and say they remember the little buck-toothed Black girl from apartment D who used to spend all her time either in books or at the Bay. They razed 489 Paul Smith Drive over a decade ago and I lost my base access when I came of age. You really can’t go home again. 

 

“What I look like longing to go back to a home that never was?” I ask myself. 

*****

VIII. 

I am only now learning, as an adult, how to immerse myself in a community rather than occupy space in it. At Hollyoak, where ’90s posters of Black History Month celebrations of local heroes line gallery walls. In the cheery brick house where I raise my children to wave to Mr. Finley and speak to Ms. Lynn. 

 

But I do not consider this gift of elders, strangely, until my biological father has come to visit us in Temple Hills. It is summer. We are packed six deep in the minivan, with me sitting backseat between my daughters to allow my father and stepmother more leg room up front. The GPS guides us a few quick turns and then we arrive at the home my great aunt Louise shares with her husband, Arthur. 

 

After my husband and I bought our house, it surprised us to learn I had family close by. Aunt Louise is one of Grandma Lennye’s seven sisters, who I barely remembered meeting at my grandmother’s funeral in 2013. She is in her eighties and moves deliberately with a back brace wrapped securely around her midsection. Uncle Arthur is tall and deeply brown, with a beard framing his wide smile. We all shuffle through their cramped ranch home and settle into their back patio on metal outdoor chairs for a small cookout. My uncle tends an impressive rack of lamb on an aged smoker. 

 

I learn a quaint but sturdy footbridge unites our two subdivisions, crossing a creek on a block with no throughway. “Your cousin Pam had a friend who used to live over by where y’all are, and they would just go back and forth over that little bridge,” Aunt Louise tells me. 

 

Aunt Louise can talk. But it is the kind of chatter I have waited my entire life to hold me in rapt attention. 

 

“How long have you all lived here?” I ask. 

 

“We moved to Camp Springs in the ’60s when it was still only white folks living here. We were the first to integrate our street. And then we slowly watched all the white people leave.” She chuckles. I laugh from my belly. It was hard to imagine our now mostly Black neighborhood full of fleeing Karens and Chads. 

 

My great aunt is guileless but sharp and we talk until the chicken is ready. There is so much food that Aunt Louise calls in reinforcements to help us eat. 

 

I leave with my belly full, my arms laden with foiled-wrapped plates and a Giant grocery bag of fresh vegetables from their garden. I leave promising to not be a stranger, holding in return the promise of someone remembering my name. I can’t wait to learn all the names buried in the bones of these old houses. One day soon I will cross a footbridge. 

 

Cover Art by Stephanie Broussard

 


 

This essay was chosen by Jenny Boully as winner of the 2020 Blood Orange Review Creative Nonfiction Contest. In choosing it, the judge wrote the following:

Beautifully pivoted between childhood and motherhood, “Water Will Carry You Home” is a prismatic mining into time and place, excavating what is hidden, what remains, what appears and what disappears. It is an enchanting and poetic excursion into the very act of holding on in a world that exhibits so many shifts and divides. This memoiristic meditation, though lush images and unexpected connections, forges its own essayistic journeying, concluding, so beautifully on how sometimes, crossing distances will get us to where we need to go. 

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Dara Mathis
Dara Mathis

Dara Mathis is a freelance writer based in Maryland. Her work on race, gender, and motherhood has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and other outlets. She spends her free time exploring the Mid-Atlantic with a scientist and three tiny humans.

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