San Diego, California (CNN) — I went home.
For our summer vacation, I traveled to my hometown of San Diego, California, for a week's stay. I went back to a Navy town that shaped me in lots of ways I understand and plenty of ways I don't.
My child had just turned 5 when I realized she had never seen my childhood homes, schools and most importantly, the Pacific Ocean beaches that served as my backyard.
She has no idea of a place where blond people dye their hair lighter, where people slather on barely-there SPFs, where beauty rules all -- the kind of values that made me want to leave at age 18, hoping for more elsewhere. No matter that no one town is as any one teenager sees it. For me, it felt like the bleached version of "The Stepford Wives."
What is home, anyway? Is it a childhood home, over which we have little control? Or something parents give their children, regardless of where they live?
Our notion of "home" can be both things, psychologist Julie Pike says. It includes the external presence of specific geographical places, people and objects. Internally, it involves comfort, ease, freedom to be oneself, acceptance, peace, safety and familiarity, and a sense of being connected.
Homesickness is essentially the absence of these characteristics, she says.
Over the next 20 years, home was where I worked: Washington, New York, San Francisco and now, Atlanta. In the meantime, everyone in my family moved away from San Diego. It took more than five years and my daughter's curiosity about where I'm from to inspire me to book our plane tickets, along with one for my mother.
Thousands of people head to San Diego to enjoy its weather and attractions, but could I travel to my hometown and have a really good vacation? What would I find?
Here are some of the questions we faced when vacationing in the place where I grew up:
Where do you stay?
Swimmers and surfers flock to Pacific Beach.
Courtesy Joanne DiBona/SanDiego.org
As the grown-up paying the hotel bill, I quickly decided we didn't need to stay in exactly the areas where I grew up.
My first neighborhood in San Diego still isn't safe and the neighborhood of my teen years required a lovely, but intense, hike to get to the beach. Our three-generation family wanted easier beach access. We also wanted someplace where friends who still live in town would like to visit.
Looking for easy beach access and a view for when the munchkin was asleep, I considered two-bedroom vacation rentals in the beach communities of La Jolla, Mission Beach, Ocean Beach and settled on Pacific Beach. I'd spent a lot of overnights there with my childhood friends.
Where do we want to go?
Cabrillo National Monument
Courtesy Joanne Dibona
I had no "home" to show my daughter, other than the exteriors of a couple of homes where I used to live. There was the house where my prom date had picked me up and tossed pine cones at my second floor roof to get my attention, a la Romeo and Juliet. (When we drove by and I told my mother the story, I quickly realized she hadn't known the story.) My high school was closed for the summer, which meant we could only drive by and notice it looked very prison-like.
That's when my mom and I decided we could go wherever we wanted to go.
There are places I revisit in my mind over and over again, places that gave me moments of happiness or made me unbelievably happy over the years I lived there. I loved sitting on the dock outside Point Loma Seafoods, eating fresh fish and watching the seagulls waiting for the fishermen to rinse the guts off their boats. I always liked walking the path to the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, catching the 360-degree view of San Diego and its astounding Naval presence. So, I decided to go to those places, along with the San Diego Zoo, the beach and any place with good Mexican food (which is everywhere). My mom had the same list, but with a specific Mexican place, Miguel's, in mind.
Once we got there, I added In-N-Out Burger to the list. I became addicted to it in college, but we can't get it where I live now. I loved it anyway, and my family did, too.
Who do we want to see?
San Diego Zoo's koalas
Ken Bohn/Courtesy San Diego Zoo
Shedding any notions of required visits, we saw whomever we wanted to see. I wanted to visit with childhood and college friends, and my mom had her posse of people from work and a parenting group she loved. We also blocked off time for just us three. That meant saying no sometimes, which was good practice.
The college friends descended upon us with spouses, children, boogie boards and coolers for an awesome day at the beach. The parenting group hosted a brunch, with people bringing toys and pictures of grandchildren and inviting grandnieces and other children to play with my daughter.
It unexpectedly became a family trip, too: As I was planning our vacation, my younger brother was transferred to San Diego, along with his wife and three kids.
My sweet and cheerful brother showed up with his wonderful family, telling jokes, lending all sorts of beach equipment and cooking burgers and hot dogs for the entire family. A combination of people showed up for the July 4 holiday, and I cooked my daughter's favorite dish, chicken broccoli pasta, for everyone.
What's our goal?
Tidepools along the Point Loma shoreline in San Diego
Courtesy Brett Shoaf
I wasn't sure about my wishes for the trip other than showing my daughter my favorite places, having time with my mother and daughter, enjoying the beach with friends and family and getting some much-needed sleep. That seemed like enough.
By the last night of our trip, I realized I had found even more joy. I had seen most of the people and places I wanted to see and was at peace with those I hadn't. I actually wanted to go home to Atlanta, where I have a home and work I love and a chosen family of friends.
"I don't want to leave," my daughter whispered to me that night, fighting sleep and having to leave her San Diego cousins and new friends.
"That's the best kind of vacation," I whispered back.
That's what she always says before we leave a good vacation, and that's what I always reply. But this time, I added, "And we can come back."