When my family and I moved to Okinawa last summer, our families had warned us ahead of time: We’re not going to be able to make it out there to visit you.  It’s just too far.  It’s too expensive.  I took the warnings with a grain of salt; they were merely repeating the same sentiments they’d uttered when my husband and I received orders to our first duty station in Germany eight years ago.  (And look what happened there – between my parents and sister, my in-her-80s grandmother, and my husband’s parents, we hardly went more than six months without a visitor from home camping out in our guest bedroom.)

The visits from family increased in frequency when our daughter was born a year and a half into that tour, and we even conceded and made a few trips back stateside to visit the family members that couldn’t fly the distance between the east coast and Europe.  We’ve been fortunate that our loved ones have been so willing and able to make those trips; not all families have that luxury.

The eight months that we’ve been here have been the longest my daughter has gone without seeing at least one of her grandparents in her five+ years of life.  It’s hard on her; despite the fact that we’ve never lived closer than a full day’s worth of air travel away from either set of our families, she’s close to them all.  Including both sets of married grandparents, four still-living great-grandparents, an aunt and a uncle, and lots of ‘greats’ and extended cousins.  Her little brother – who had just celebrated his first birthday when we made the 48 hour trek from the east coast of the states here to the island – doesn’t feel their absence as badly as she does.  He’s still too young to understand what a grandparent is.  But he’s not too young to know how to chat online with them.

3 March 2009 - computer time

Every weekend we sign onto our respective Skype accounts, fire up the webcams, and our children perform tricks for their grandparents in real time.  My parents have watched our son learn to stand up on his own and take his first tentative steps; they’ve heard his talking progress from single part-words (“Mama”) to partial sentences (“No, Mommy, DOWN!”), and laughed at the variety of animal noises that he’s perfected.  They watched my daughter open her gifts on her birthday and Christmas morning and were able to actually see the joy and expressions on her face as she thanked them for her gifts in person.

In turn, we’ve been able to watch as my sister-in-law’s belly has been growing over these past eight months.  My daughter has gotten caught up in the pregnancy excitement: “I’m going to have a cousin!”, and seeing his aunt waddle in front of the camera has prompted my son to lift up my shirt, poke my belly and say, “Baby!”  (To which I always respond, “Oh no, no, no.  No baby in Mommy’s belly!”)  We’ve been able to talk to and see the dog we left behind with my parents; we see his ears perk up at the sound of our voices and hear his tail thumping the floor when we tell him he’s a good boy.

My grandparents are in their eighties; they don’t have computer access.  For older adults on a fixed income, making international calls isn’t necessarily something they can do.  When we were in Germany, they relied on us to call them, and our communication was sporadic at best, limited mostly to holidays and birthdays.  Before we moved here, however, my husband and I signed up for Vonage phone service; it’s a phone system that runs through your high-speed internet service.  With that we were able to set up a stateside number that our families can use to call us, with only the cost of a long distance state-to-state charge (or no cost, if we’d arranged for a number in their state), rather than country-to-country.  We, in turn, can call them as often as we’d like with no worries about how much each minute is costing us, or whether we’re going to use up our minutes of free long-distance from the local phone company.  Our phone bill is the same each month, which makes planning our finances easier, and which also leaves us free to communicate in the best ways that we can.

Staying in touch with our families is not an option for us; it’s a part of our lives and it helps keep my kids connected to the people they know and love best.  Knowing that her grandparents are just a phone call away has made this last move easier for my daughter to handle.  Needing to only negotiate the time difference, but not the financial burden of staying in touch, has helped us to keep her grounded and from feeling so displaced.  Which, in turn, makes our military family life that much more acceptable to her.  My husband and I made the choice to travel so far from home; my children did not.  So we feel it’s our responsibility to help them find their roots by any (feasible) means possible.

13 July 2008-27

Other ways that we help keep the familial bonds strong are:

  • Looking through photo albums often.  We point out pictures of the grandparents with our kids, and remind them of the stories attached to those pictures. (Remember when we took that trip to the zoo together?)
  • Playing the “Who loves you?” game with our 20-month-old.  (Mommy, Daddy, Grammy, Grampy, Nanny, Grandpa, Auntie Becca, Uncle Bobby, Aunt Julie, G-Ma, Gigi, Nana, PePere…)
  • Designating my daughter’s preschool artwork to be sent to family back home. (Grammy would love to put this on her refrigerator!)
  • Writing thank you notes when our families send gifts. (This has the two-fold effect of teaching our daughter the importance of expressing gratitude, plus working on writing upper- and lowercase letters and words.)
  • Picking out seashells and sea glass to send back to our families. (G-Ma loves seashells – this one would be perfect to send to her!)
  • I write often and post pictures to my family blog, so that family and friends stateside can check to see what we’ve been up to and to watch how the kids change.  My daughter often requests for me to write posts on specific topics, because she likes the feedback she gets from her grandparents.
  • Right now, my daughter and I are planning the itineraries for the visit my sister’s making to see us next week.  And for the trip that my dad and his mother have lined up for the
    month after that.  And for my mom’s visit next fall.  Her first priority for each of them is, of course, to take them to the aquarium. My biggest priority is to get in that much-needed face time.  And to point out that I knew they couldn’t hold out on seeing us, of course.

What about you?  How do you stay in touch with your loved ones back home?  Do you have any special rituals or traditions that you use to help your kids maintain their relationships with long-distance relatives?  Any technological stuff that has proved itself invaluable in the effort to stay connected?  What works for your family?


Okinawa Phones Home


  1. Vonage is relatively easy to use. My husband and I “registered” before we came and since they do not ship to PO Boxes, we had the router shipped to the in-laws in PA and they brought it with them when they came to visit. We’ve had a few hiccups with service, but whenever we call the 1800 number, we get nothing, but extraordinary service. So I would recommend it. It’s also nice that since it’s a US based number, relatives can call it as part of their cell phone minutes. Anyway…that’s my two cents. Welcome aboard.

  2. We use Yahoo messenger to make computer to computer calls using the webcam (works great for deployments too) and to text message (for free) cell phones in the States, and several other countries. I believe skype charges for the texting but it is not much.

    We email, blog and Facebook a lot as well, and I am a letter writer to those that don’t have computers and we, of course, send tons of postcards and little notes to all the family and friends so they can see a little bit of our adventures.

    I do make many trips to the 100 yen shop for odds and ends that I have found useful and know family and friends will like as well. It seems I am always at the post office shipping a small box or letter off…but staying in touch is fun.

    Other than the computer calls, we don’t call much on the regular phone but if we do, we just use a calling card from the vending machines, great rates and I don’t have to worry about a bill or having my credit card number out there…

  3. Such an interesting post. Love reading about your ideas. Sending the seaglass – so cute! Having grown up a military brat, I know what a strain these separations can put on a child’s relationships with extended family. It’s a nice reminder that there are many to keep family bonds strong even when a visit isn’t possible.

    Looking forward to reading more of your posts. Welcome aboard and thanks for sharing!

  4. Just wanted to share another idea that works well for us and our extended family–I use to create personalized email postcards, scrapbooks and greetings to send out to family and friends. Smilebox has several levels; you can make free things to send, but they are not full screen and have ads attached to them, although they are nice. They also have a service where you pay $40 per year and the things you make and send are ad free, full screen and have other extras, too. Because our son is so young, just turned one, reaching so many milestones,and I was sending so many, the premium service works for us, right now. Not sure if I need to continue it through his entire childhood, but for now it suits us. You can put video clips in along with the pictures. It is easy to use, they have templates and you drag and drop your photos and videos into the template. You add your own text and it is done. An advantage for me, too, is that some of the scrapbook templates can take up to 400 photos, so I don’t have to just send one or two photos from a special trip, I can send quite a few and avoid huge download and upload times of sending the photos via regular email. Your creations can also be posted to Facebook and other social networking sites to further share with friends. Grandmas and Grandpas have given us positive feedback about receiving the Smileboxes we send. I know I sound like and advertisement, I won’t get any kickbacks from reccommending the site, it works well for us and I wanted to share it with you all.

  5. We use Skype to Skype with the web cam for those who also have Skype at home, and for $9.99/month we can use Skype to call anywhere in the world for landlines and cell phones. They have cheaper plans for calling, too. Like Vonage, you can also get a stateside number for friends and family to call you, and if you don’t want to be tied down to your computer, you can order a Skype phone (looks like a cell) to use.

  6. Welcome Heather, hope to meet you soon!

    I just learned about a phone company called ACN I think; they are basically the same as Skype in the sense that you can see who you are talking to but the clarity of the picture is amazing, much better quality than Skype. I don’t know too many more details unfortunately, just that it has been predicted by many tech experts to take off in sales and do extremely well. Maybe someone else out there can provide more info.

  7. Hey! Vonage has no problem with you using their phones overseas. We had them for a few years and then had to move to England. We called and told them why we were cancelling and not only did they encourage us to take their service with us, but gave us 2 free months while we were in transit. We had no problem with the move from England to Okinawa either. I love vonage.

  8. Welcome, Heather! 🙂 I have to chime in with the “got-tears-in-my-eyes” crowd on this one! Our situation is a bit reversed, though. My children are grown and able maintain their own relationships, but I’m missing my five year old nephew something fierce! I am the auntie on the receiving end of packages filled with art-work-for-the-fridge and hand made Christmas ornaments. Vonage helps us feel like we (almost) live next door.

  9. I noticed on the Vonage website that they require you to have a pre-existing internet service before you can order the service. But if I don’t know what that service provider is going to be until I get on island, can I still purchase the service? I heard that I need to get the starter package before I leave the states, so I’m trying to sort this out. HELP!

  10. Welcome Heather G! I loved your story. We’re nearing the end of our three year tour here. I’ve really loved using skype to skype with the webcam to chat with my parents. It helps my two young boys stay in touch and fill the gap. I also use skype to call my less than technologically inclined family and friends’ on their landline phones. I hope I get to meet you before I leave!

  11. We’ve come to rely on Yahoo Messenger (similar to Skype) for webcam meet-ups – which is also terrific for deployment time, of course.

    We tried Vonage but couldn’t get it to work here. My hubby gave in and cancelled it and got us a landline here instead and our biggest phone bill (for the holidays) has been $12. I don’t know what the rate per minute to the States is, but that was shockingly low to me.

    We’ve used postcards to stay in touch with friends and family back home – especially handy for my almost 8-year-old because she can pick out cards at the PX, touristy sites, etc and just tell me who she wants to send them to. She’s even keeping in touch with her old Brownie Troop this way – we send them a postcard about once a month and they read them as a troop at a meeting.

    We also hit the 100Yen store and “blow” $20 or so each month on goodie boxes to send home to the old Troop, family, and friends. I’ve found that it really helps me feel connected as I try to find things people will enjoy and won’t have seen before. Plus I can pick up boxes and Customs forms each trip and put together boxes at home as I find things and then go mail them in one fell swoop without standing at the PO filling out forms. Plus it’s something to get us out of the house and exploring – helps you resist the urge to hibernate due to being new on island and doing the deployment dance.

  12. Great to have you, Heather! I got a little teary as well while reading. Now that I have two kids- I find it more difficult to be far from family. Great suggestions that I will use to keep everyone connected.:) Thanks!

  13. Welcome aboard Heather. I know you are going to do great. Just reading your very heartwarming and descriptive post brings tears to my eyes. What a fabulous post and very relevant to the community. I LOVED your suggestions on how to stay connected with loved ones back home. It sounds like you are doing a great job keeping your family connected with your loved ones back home! Thanks for sharing!!

  14. Thanks to all for the welcome! I’m looking forward to joining this group as a regular!

    Melissa – We actually signed up for Vonage when we got here… in hindsight it would have been easier to do before we left, but we didn’t know. If I could re-do my experience with it, I’d have switched my phone company from our local one in Colorado to Vonage before moving out, which would have allowed us to keep our existing phone number. Because we didn’t have a number to transfer, we had to pick a new one. We fudged a couple of the details online (shhh, don’t tell!), and ‘registered’ it with our old address, but had the starter kit sent to my in-laws in another state, then they forwarded it to us. I believe that *technically* Vonage doesn’t want people bringing these boxes outside the US, so it’s probably better to use your current internet company when signing up. It doesn’t really matter once you hook it up, though – it’ll work as long as you set it up properly.