By April Dudash
Born into an Army family and married to a soldier, Molly Hayden had 41 different home addresses by the time she turned 40. The constant uprooting could be exciting, yes, but she never really had a steady job or an uninterrupted education. Until now. Less than a year ago, Hayden opened her own fabric boutique in Hope Mills. Every yard of fabric, spool of silk thread and tiniest sewing needle comprises a dream.
Branch out in just about any direction from Fort Bragg, and you're bound to run into a business owner who's also a military wife. These women have followed their husbands across state lines and overseas. He got the first 20 years, it's said, she gets the next 20. For them, settling down has little to do with the house and picket fence; it's about a brick and mortar business.
For Hayden, opening a sewing shop was a no-brainer. She's been sewing since sixth grade, when she made a cheerleading outfit for her droopy, bald baby doll. She keeps up with the trends and teaches the techniques, and her sewing explanations are quite unconventional when paired with her large personality.
"Taffetas, they're not beginner fabrics. They'll slide out from under ya ... vroom!" she exclaimed, miming fabric flying through the machine.
Hayden spent two years in the Army herself, and her husband put in 24. They met in advanced individual training, when their eyes locked.
Twenty-five years and two children later, she became entrenched in the motor sergeant way of life.
"That whole world is grease monkeys. I love 'em," she said.
When her husband retired three years ago, Fayetteville looked like it was going to remain home. The stability wasn't something she was used to, and it made her antsy for a while.
She went back to school at Fayetteville Technical Community College to study graphic design, something that wouldn't have been possible during the moves.
She began to consider stepping away from office management, her former career, and she did some soul-searching. What did she really enjoy doing?
Having sewed outfits for the important moments in her life, eighth-grade graduation, prom, her pregnancies, the answer was right in front of her.
She began buying furniture for the store she didn't even have yet.
After finding a location, her husband helped her lay down flooring, create countertops for the classroom and make trim for the doors. And she picked a name: Sew & Sews Place.
Hayden has discovered that she's comfortable as a business owner.
"You wouldn't believe what I get to wear to work!" she says. "I come in here with big swirly skirts, and I get to wear my pearls to work." She spins around once, smiling.
Her goals are to carry goods that sewers haven't seen other places. She's no Hancock Fabrics or Jo-Ann. She knows her audience, and it's an audience that likes to leave their homes well-dressed.
During her work hours, Mr. Hayden will occasionally stop by, change a burnt light fixture or two, and check up on her. These are moments Hayden welcomes, when she looks up from pinning fabric and sees him coming through the front door. She calls their relationship the Mutual Adoration Society.
"I supported him throughout his military career, and he supports me," she said.
Sundi McLaughlin used to be a free-spirited "shell lady" in Key West. She dove for treasures, set up a stand and sold her finds to tourists. After that, she transitioned into a sheriff's deputy position in Sarasota.
But when she and her military husband left Florida and moved to Southern Pines three years ago, she couldn't find work anywhere.
"As a military wife, you follow them around and be supportive, but that leaves the wife with a shoddy work resume," McLaughlin said. "You can't sink your teeth in too much if you think you're going to be moving soon." McLaughlin visited multiple unemployment agencies before becoming the business manager of Mary Contrary, a gift shop on Northwest Broad Street.
When the owner was going to close the store two months later, McLaughlin thought about the four powerful words that kept running through her head: "If this was mine ..."
So the store became her own. She renamed it The Mockingbird, after the state bird of Florida, the place where she and her husband met, fell in love and married. It's also a reference to one of her favorite books, "To Kill a Mockingbird."
On a recent morning, with the door open to let the cool air in, a group of women entered the shop, browsing the shelves of evergreen-scented candles, bright yellow aprons and bold-patterned pajamas.
"Hi, girls!" Sundi said cheerily. "How are you today?"
The shoppers glanced up and smiled. Sundi's disposition is infectious.
The Mockingbird's ceiling is covered in pretty pastel parasols, and soft linens are draped over aged furniture.
"This shop's so girly, there are little dolls, pjs ... I used to wrestle inmates to the ground," she said, laughing at the career contrast.
She balances her work with her husband's frequent deployments, something that she says has gotten easier with time. Her two major responsibilities, upkeep at home and at The Mockingbird, keep her busy.
"All of it's on me here," she said. "All of it's on me at the house."
She said the life of an Army wife naturally revolves around her husband's work, and her state of career uncertainty would trouble her husband. For McLaughlin, it was a relief to settle down.
"It's so nice to be proud of something, to have some ownership of something," she said.
And she has neighbors who understand the life of a business owner and military wife. At the shop next door, Jessica Harrelson is the co-owner of Swank, part coffee shop, part boutique, part hip hangout. In 2007, she got married, opened Swank and put her husband on a plane for Afghanistan, all within 39 days.
And there lies the drawback of being married to the military and your own business. Army life is apt to sudden change, and McLaughlin just hopes she's able to keep the shop on Broad Street for years to come. It all depends on if her husband can remain stationed at Fort Bragg.
"God willing, we should be able to hang out here," she said.
Funky floral fun
When the flower truck pulls up in front of Nancy Jackson's storefront between Spring Lake and Sanford, she knows it's time to shop.
The driver slides open the back door of the truck, revealing buckets and bundles of flowers crammed into its belly. A sweet, earthy aroma pours out as Jackson picks certain buds to display in her flower fridge.
"They grow all kinds of funky stuff, which is what I'm all about," said Jackson, whose short, fire-red hair and multicolored glasses match her eccentric tastes.
Divine Designs by Nancy is a flower and gift shop that sells the work of local artists and crafters, many of whom are military spouses just like her.
Jackson has waited 25 years to open her business, something she has been training for ever since she graduated with a horticulture degree from the University of New Hampshire.
Then she met her husband, and they spent the next 22 years moving with the military, everywhere from Texas to Germany.
"It's been a long time coming for me, this dream, but I don't regret it because everywhere I went was a piece of the puzzle," Jackson said.
She worked on her business plan for four months before diving into the world of retail. Her store opened its doors last August.
"We're not multimillionaires," she said. "We're going by faith on these things."
Her husband, who served as a combat engineer specializing in demolition, retired in 2003. He now works with veterans at an unemployment office. On weekends, he helps Jackson clean her store and maintain the books.
Jackson has supplied flowers to parties, funerals, weddings and vow renewals. Right now, she's busy gearing up for Valentine's Day.
She said she enjoys helping the military community; she has given flowers to women whose husbands are re-enlisting. Sometimes, soldiers come into her shop and ask for her floral expertise.
She tends to feel like a bartender when she listens to military wives describe what they're going through, whether they're about to move or struggling to settle down in a new city.
"I try to encourage the spouses, if you're in the middle of your journey and you're bounced around a lot," Jackson said. "If you didn't move, chances are you would never meet all these people."
And she reminds them that it won't be long before they get their turn.