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Dear Tennessee: A Complicated Love Letter to My Home State

“Good ol’ Rocky Top. Rocky Top, Tennessee.” What was once a state I longed to leave as soon as I could go to college, now feels like a distant memory I cannot wait to return to. Growing up in Tennessee, since I was young, I planned on leaving. Because I grew up in the same town at the same school with the same people since I was 5, I knew I wanted to go to college in a place where I knew absolutely nobody just so I could finally have a fresh start.

Every time I imagined my future life, I pictured a pretentious, hyper-romanticized life at a city-college where I could meet like-minded individuals who did not conform to the typical Southern culture I grew up around. For so many years, I rejected Southern culture and wished I grew up anywhere but the South.

As soon as junior year of high school arrived, I finally realized that within two years, I would be leaving home. I wouldn’t be sleeping in my childhood bedroom, going to my tito’s (close family friend’s) house for habitual potlucks or regularly hanging out with my friends. Starting my junior year, there were numerous nights where I found myself lying down on my bedroom floor, staring at the ceiling and finally realizing a whole new chapter of my life was about to start.

Senior year of high school, I applied to numerous universities that were as far away from Tennessee as I could be: California, New York, Florida and Texas. The entire time I worked on those applications, I imagined my life in these new places, excited for what life planned to throw at me.

Suddenly, COVID-19 hit. At the beginning of the pandemic, all of my high school classmates and I were thinking the pandemic would not be as bad in the fall, and the virus would settle down, so we would have a normal freshman year. We were very wrong. As soon as June arrived, I canceled my dorm contract for Yulee and stayed home instead of finally leaving for college.

However, I was one of the only people in my hometown to stay. Most of my friends and classmates still decided to go to campus even though classes were online, so I felt as if I was left behind. As a result, I resented being in Tennessee even more. All of my midnight crying sessions on my bedroom floor, my Spotify homesickness playlist I made during my senior year and the numerous dorm inspiration Pinterest boards felt like a waste of time.

I spent the entire fall 2020 semester in my bedroom, using my laptop as my only source of connection to my peers and friends. Every day felt like a routine where I would wake up, attend online classes and take naps in between. Then I repeated it the next day. It seemed as if it would never end. Each time I found myself following my routine, I tried to do different activities like painting or gardening, but slowly, I fell back to the same pattern.

Finally, when the university announced more classes would be in person, I made sure to sign up for some so I could have an excuse to finally come to campus to escape the routine monotony I subconsciously adopted. Now, I’m here at the University of Florida, 703 miles and a 10-and-a-half-hour car ride away from my small town of Jackson, Tennessee, right off of Interstate-40.

While I packed my belongings in vacuum bags and stuffed my car for the drive, I felt so excited I was finally on my way, but like so many nights before, I felt an instant dread when I realized I was leaving. Starting that night, I would no longer regularly sleep in my childhood bedroom, surrounded by mementos like old art projects and pictures with my best friend cemented on the wall that I collected over the years. Nor would I be snuggled underneath my favorite IKEA duvet with my numerous stuffed animals. I was finally growing up.

Now that I have lived in Gainesville for a few months, I often find myself reminiscing over the feeling of being in Tennessee. For example, I often play those old country songs that used to make me cringe when I heard them because it reminds me of listening to the local radio on the way to elementary school. Other times, I crave the pulled pork sandwiches with spicy barbecue sauce from Latham’s, the butcher shop near my house I have been going to since I was a toddler. I still reminisce over the smell of the fried hush puppies and catfish they cooked every Friday for lunch.

Since middle school, I dreamed of my life outside of Tennessee once I started attending college. Now that I am living it, I realize it’s not the romanticized fantasy I imagined at 14. Instead, so much of my heart longs to drive those 703 miles, see the familiar sight of cow farms and finally return to my small hometown just so I can feel at home once more.

Even though I never left the South and some may say I am not that far from my hometown compared with others, homesickness still sits heavily in my heart. As I grow older, I realize I always long for what I cannot have at that moment. As a kid stuck in Tennessee my whole life, I wanted to leave. Now that I am hundreds of miles away, all I want is to return to my small hometown off of I-40 just so I can feel like a kid one more time.

Maddy Gastador is a first-year chemistry major and Spanish minor at the University of Florida. Whenever she's not writing, you can catch her binge-watching Netflix, baking cookies, painting, attempting to be a plant mom, or obsessing over BTS. You can get to know her more through Instagram @mxdeleine.c
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