The alarm goes off three hours earlier than usual. I slam my hand down on the phone to shut it off. Waking up is hard enough. Waking up at 5 am is the worst.
My husband stirs as I get out of bed; he only came to bed three hours earlier so I let him keep sleeping. We don’t have to leave until after 6. I stumble around and get dressed in the dark, and head to the kitchen to unload the dishwasher. I go through my mental checklist, which hasn’t quite come into focus in my early morning stupor, and remember I need to set my Out Of Office message. Inevitably, I will forget at least one of the items on my check list but by the time I remember, we’ll be half way to Florida and it won’t actually matter.
At 5:45, I’m nearly done with my To Do list and go check on the sleeping man in our bedroom. Still conked out. I don’t think he remembered to set an alarm, so I wake him. Or try to. By 6, the car is packed and I’m ready to hit the road. He’s still passed out and ignoring my insistence that he get up and put on pants.
“Just crawl into the car. I already loaded a pillow and blanket. You can go back to sleep.”
That’s when it hits me: a sense of déjà vu so powerful that for the briefest of moments I’m not in our bedroom in Nashville, but my childhood bedroom in Florida, and I’m not me but I’m my mother, looking down at pre-teen Ashley in the bed.
“Just grab your pillow and crawl into the car. You can go back to sleep.”
Trying to wake up my husband reminded me of what my mother had to go through dozens of times as she corralled my brother and me from our beds into the minivan to make the 12-hour drive from St. Pete to Nashville.
This time, the trip would be done in reverse, 11 hours from Nashville to St. Pete (no kids = fewer stops), and in some small way I would be returning home.
• • •
Home is a word whose meaning can change depending on your location. Our first night in town, while we were out at dinner, I told Justin we’d look up St. Pete real estate prices ‘when we got home’, and I was referring to our AirBNB on 5th Avenue; a little while later I reminded him that ‘when we got home’ I need to get my oil checked, and I definitely meant Nashville.
For me, home is usually wherever I’m sleeping that night, but the concept of home is something more, something like family, something that fits.
I was born in San Diego but moved to Nashville when I was a toddler. San Diego is as foreign to me as Timbuktu. We left Nashville when I was 7 for Seminole, FL (an unincorporated town next to St. Pete). But Nashville was where my mother’s entire family lived. Nashville was where we went for Christmas and summer vacations. We made that 12-hour trek three to five times a year, always staying with or near family, and every time we went back to Nashville, it felt like wrapping up in a cozy blanket; warm and familiar and like home. It fit.
When my parents decided to move back to Nashville, I was 21 and living in Paris. I still had a couple years of school to finish up in Orlando, and was a little annoyed that ‘home’ would no longer be a 2 hour drive away. Friends asked me if I was sad to lose my childhood ‘home’, the house I’d spent close to fifteen years in. I shrugged. Yeah, it was a beautiful house and had a pool, but we’d lived in another house for a year when we first moved to Florida, and at that point I was in my third apartment in three years. That’s when I started to realize ‘home’ wasn’t really a place at all.
After I came home from Paris, I spent the summer ‘at home’ in Nashville with my parents in their new house. It was twice the size of our Florida house, on the lake, and was gorgeous. We all loved it immediately. And the fact that it was in Nashville, close to all of my mom’s brothers and my cousins, made it feel like home from day one.
I moved to Nashville in 2008, after completing my BA (in five and a half years, thank you very much). It was meant to be temporary, to give me time to figure out what the hell I was going to do with my degree and where I wanted to live. It quickly became permanent: I made good friends, I liked being close to the family I had been so far from, and the city radiates Southern charm and friendliness. I slipped back into Nashville like an old pair of comfy pajamas. They still fit, and Nashville felt more like home than any other place I’d ever lived.
Buying a home in 2012 cemented my choice in the city as my home. I may have grown up in Florida, but I feel much more myself in Tennessee. Nashville, the city and its people, has grabbed hold of my heart, so tight that sometimes the best part of taking a trip is coming back home.
• • •
I’ve gone ‘home’ with my husband to South Dakota several times — for Christmases and weddings and vacations at the lake (imagine a small beach, surrounded by cornfields). He knows his way around blindly, taking shortcuts and back roads the way we can ‘at home’ in Nashville. He’s shown me where he used to live, where he got into a fight, where he went to school. He’s taken me downtown, where he and his friends used to drive the loop on a Friday night, cruising for no good reason other than they could.
It’s his home because it’s where his entire family lives, all several hundred of them, but I get the impression that he’s always a little uncomfortable on his old stomping grounds. Sioux Falls doesn’t quite fit anymore. It’s not a comfy cozy blanket, soft on the skin, but one of those old afghans that Great Aunt Gerta keeps on the back of her couch. It’s warm and will do for a few nights, but it’s not the same as the fuzzy pink blanket covered in cat hair on the foot of our bed.
Coming back to St. Pete feels the same for me. The streets, covered in memories, are familiar and nostalgia hits me with every gust of salty air, but Baywalk is now called the Sundial, Seminole mall and the Pier no longer exist, and there’s a Walmart on Bay Pines Blvd. Most of the friends I grew up with no longer live here, and all of my family live in other cities, states and timezones.
We came to St. Pete last year, for the wedding of my oldest friend. I met Krystan in the 2nd grade, weeks after having moved to Seminole from Tennessee. She was the first person to invite me to play at her house after school, and the only person from that elementary school that I’m still friends with. Watching her get married was a really special experience.
This time, we’re back for another wedding: Hilary is the younger sister of one of my best friends, Katie. I used to drive Katie to and from school every day, and Hilary would annoy us while we tried to do our homework. And here she is, all grown up, getting married. Aside from feeling a little bit old, watching her walk down the aisle sparked a whole slew of memories and bittersweet twinges of nostalgia.
Coming back to St. Pete isn’t quite the same as ‘coming home.’ Sure, we passed by St. Pete High, the only school with which I’ve ever felt a personal connection, and I love the vibrancy and new life of the downtown scene, but St. Pete doesn’t fit me anymore. It doesn’t feel like I place where I can kick off my shoes and put my feet on the furniture. It’s beautiful, with wonderful weather, and I know we’ll be back again, but we’ll always be visitors, tourists, strangers even.
• • •
I tried explaining this feeling to Justin as we were driving from the wedding to my friend’s parents’ new house. He nodded, understanding and said, “I feel more like a stranger each time I come home.”
“I’m going to steal that,” I said.
“Well, I stole it. It’s Conor Oberst.”
That lyric perfectly and succinctly captures my feelings about going back to good ole 727. St. Pete has become foreign to me, and I look forward to exploring it again and again. But it’s definitely a weird feeling to go back to a place you used to call home. It’s like hanging out with some high school friends after we’d all been off at our respective colleges for a couple years; it was nice to see one another but we no longer had anything in common.
The drive down to St. Pete didn’t seem to take too long, maybe because we had a whole weekend of wedding fun ahead of us. But the drive back seemed interminably long. I kept asking, “Are we there yet?” even though I was driving. Passing through the Nashville city limits, I smiled, almost relieved. I used to get so excited as a kid when we made it to the part of town I recognized, the part where we split from I-24 to Briley to head into Donelson, where my Granni lived.
Now, we live in Donelson and the excitement isn’t from ‘coming home’ to visit family. We get to live here, a place that fits just right. I smile as we pull into our driveway, excited to finally get out of the car and take a shower and eat dinner, but most all excited just to be coming home again.