I spent the first seventeen years of my life in Dalton, Georgia, with all of my family: parents, sister, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, and many many cousins. We went to church together every Sunday (twice) and every Wednesday night, taking up six or seven pews in the sanctuary. We picnicked at Memaw’s house as often as we could, and I thrived in public schools, becoming a tennis player and excelling in high school. But all that time, I knew I did not want to live in Dalton forever–there had to be more out there to see, do, play, explore. So off I went to college, having the time of my life, but during that period, I developed a distaste for my hometown. Snobbish, even. In college, when I would go home to visit, my friends who were from metro Atlanta would tease me, saying I picked up Dalton’s thick Southern accent while I was there, and I became nicknamed JEEL, because evidently that is how I said my name after spending time immersed in NW Georgia accents. Training myself out of that accent, I tried to distance myself from all things Dalton, even my family at times. For money reasons, I briefly moved home after college to take my first job at Westside Middle School (Go Rockets!), but after that year, I hightailed it to the big city–ATL–and never looked back. I belong in the city. However, as I was driving home yesterday, up I75 through Acworth, Cartersville, Adairsville, and Calhoun, I started to feel a shift within myself. There are some charming aspects of this Appalachian foothills town, and even if there are so many reasons that I will never live here again, I can’t deny that this is home. This is where I am from, where my family lives, where I am the most loved. In this town, traffic is considered more than five cars at the redlight on Cleveland Hwy. In this town, you can get from the northern border of Whitfield County to the southern county line in 20 minutes. Here there is a cultural blend of Hispanics with redneck Southerners that is sometimes volatile, but adds a flavor to the town it didn’t have 15 years ago. In this town, the unemployment rate is twice the national average, but its people are honest, salt-of-the-earth citizens who don’t want to live anywhere else. My great-great-grandparents lived here, and few members of generations that followed have left. My Memaw attended Westside, where I taught my first year, when it was a high school. Here I can have lunch with Ann MacKinnon, one of the most influential people in my life, who happened to be my physics and chemistry teacher at Northwest Whitfield High School, where she still challenges kids to see beyond the obvious, dig deeper into the mysterious, and go further than you think you can go. This is where I met my best and dearest lifelong friends, Elizabeth and Meredith.
Today, Christmas Eve, I will have two celebrations: one with the Touchstones and one with the Harrises. At each home, thirty or forty of us will pile in, sitting on the floor, eating off of paper plates, laughing, telling embarrassing stories, catching up, and exchanging sweet little gifts. My cousins’ babies will be the center of attention, as they should be, and at the end of the evening we will read the Christmas story from the Bible, sing carols, and listen to Memaw tell stories. It is my favorite time of the year. And it feels like home.