After 15 years away, it still feels like home

Upon hearing where I’m from, waitresses, shop clerks, and Uber drivers invariably lament that Nashville is “turning into Atlanta.” The symptoms include worsening traffic and ubiquitous construction cranes. I invariably assure them that the traffic, however bad it may seem, occasionally moves forward and therefore has a long way to go to catch up with my hometown. Nevertheless, Nashville is similar enough in its housing stock and layout and flora and fauna and vibe to trigger regular twangs of Proustian recall. The same lightning bugs twinkled around the yard, when I arrived in June, that I caught in jelly jars as a child. Driving on the highway at night the same yellow Waffle House glow announces a pending exit. Early mornings bring the same dusting of dew over the grass and the deck chairs, the same blue plastic bags in the good Southern liberals’ front yards containing the national edition of the New York Times, and the same sense of distance from the world described therein: a distance more of sensibility than of geographic remove, a kind of relaxed detachment.

Fifteen years ago when I left my hometown of Atlanta to start my freshman year at Princeton, I didn’t know exactly where I’d go from there or when, if ever, I’d be back. In all the intervening years of work and law school and grad school, through half a decade in Northern California and briefer stints in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, I had always still considered myself a Southerner, but people I talked to were always telling me I didn’t sound like one (something they imagined, I think, to be a compliment) and even I wasn’t exactly sure how familiar the South would feel after 15 years away. So it’s been comforting to find that it still feels like home, after all.

Fifteen years ago when I left my hometown of Atlanta to start my freshman year at Princeton, I didn’t know exactly where I’d go from there or when, if ever, I’d be back. ... It’s been comforting to find that it still feels like home, after all.

One thing, though, seems undeniably to have changed, and that is the climate. I don’t mean this metaphorically. I arrived to the oppressive humidity of June, and it stayed hot through July and then through August, all of which I’d expected. Then it stayed hot into the early weeks of September, which was mildly disconcerting but sometimes happens. But then it just kept staying hot. The day before Halloween—a holiday I associate with darkness and cold, sweatshirts ruining costumes—I walked my dog in short sleeves. Passersby exulted the sunshine, but I found it eerie. It was, according to the Weather app on my iPhone, nearly 90 degrees. It was, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the warmest October in the continental United States in 122 years of recordkeeping. Neither candidate for president was talking about any of this, as far as I could tell. Was I overreacting? Maybe I’d spent too much time in California, and lost touch with the experience of ordinary weather variations. Maybe I was being melodramatic, layering doomsday scenarios atop an ordinary fluke. Maybe I’d just misremembered everything about my childhood. If so, I would hardly have been the first.

Later that summery late October week, I tooled the dog around the neighborhood’s cul-de-sacs and conducted an informal poll of Nashville based upon the neighbors’ front yards: approximately 96 voters for Clinton, two for Johnson, one for Stein, and one inflatable Dracula, goofily waving his black-robed, air-filled arms. The neighbors would be disappointed but not surprised, I supposed, when our state, in a few days’ time, awarded its electoral votes to Trump. Sure enough, a few days later, the final vote tally showed Davidson County, Tenn., coming in at 60 percent for Clinton and only 34 percent for Trump — a higher margin for Clinton than in, say, Nassau County, N.Y. — even as the statewide numbers for Tennessee were reversed. This too brought back childhood memories, in a way. Growing up with McGovern-liberal parents in Atlanta, I was used to living in a blue city surrounded by a hostile polity. But how shocked must the neighbors have been, I wondered, to find themselves surrounded not just by a red state, as expected, but also by a red country? About as shocked, I supposed, as all my friends in San Francisco and Los Angeles and Brooklyn and Seattle and Philadelphia now felt.

The day after the election, I woke up early, partly because my phone kept beeping with text messages from distraught friends and family, but mainly because the dog needed walking and I needed coffee. Just like the day before, the squirrels darted in and out of trash cans, and the dog rustled his nose through a pile of jaundiced leaves. At the neighborhood bagel shop, a pair of grandfatherly men had spread across their table the front page of the Wall Street Journal: “Divisive Race Ends.” Teenagers in plaid uniforms chattered in line, picking up bagels on their way to school. “Thanks,” the cashier told me. “You have a good day.” I noticed something else oddly comforting, and perhaps falsely comforting, but I would take it: It was freezing, far too cold for my T-shirt. When I got home I unearthed my warmest sweater from the bowels of a closet. On a day that felt like everything had changed, it was also the first day that felt like the fall I remembered.

Courtesy Vanderbilt University

Sara Mayeux graduated from Princeton in 2005 and subsequently earned both a law degree and a history Ph.D. from Stanford. She is now an assistant professor of law at Vanderbilt.

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