In late December 2002, I sat down to write my first homes column for the St. Petersburg Times.
It was New Year's Eve afternoon and I was feeling sentimental about my late grandmother's cottage in suburban Chicago, a house beneath the elms that I've always wished I could find exactly as I remember it.
Fast forward six years as I write my last homes story on a winter day close to Christmas. My tree shimmers brightly beneath a snowfall of white lights and silver garland. As always, it wears a patchwork quilt of family ornaments, many old and homemade, that I've cherished for years.
What makes this holiday different is that I'm packing up to move to another city. Cardboard boxes bulge with everything from books to spices.
I hate moving. Moving means disassembling my beautiful nest and refeathering it somewhere else. No matter where I've lived, my home has always been my own creative vision of castoff family furniture, thrift store finds and roadside treasures.
When it comes to where and how I live, I'm definitely not a conventional person, and over the years I've been drawn to stories about people whose homes aren't conventional either.
My articles have taken me from breathtaking mansions along Bayshore Boulevard to ranches and kumquat groves and equestrian communities in New Tampa. I've met cowboys and architects and strawberry farmers and military wives (who, trust me on this, move far more than the rest of us).
Writing about homes has given me an excuse to peek into other people's nests, even if just for an hour or two, and come away with a sense of their souls. I usually have an idea about who they are, what they love, what makes them happy.
A few years ago I wrote about a woman who lived by herself in a log cabin in the middle of a cow pasture. An old chandelier from an opera house in Paris hung in the middle of the living room. She loved to entertain and once served her guests a meal in Chinese food takeout boxes. The house and location struck me as perfection at that moment in her life.
She and others like her have truly given me a greater sense of what home really means. In that first column I wrote: "Home is not a place but a state of mind. A real home means love, food, friends and family, and all the happiness and heartbreak that go with living."
I still believe that. But I also think home is a reflection of who we are at certain, pivotal points in our lives. On different occasions people told me they worried that I would notice their moving boxes or incomplete renovation or messy spare bedroom — something I now completely understand.
Right now I'm in transition, too. I'll gradually make a new home and new life for myself, as we all are often called to do.
When my new place is eventually pulled together it will reflect what I've learned from my stories in the Times: That home — my home — is my favorite place in the world.
Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.