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Southerners have an identity. They are the land they grew up on. Heat and gnats and flowers and rain live in them. Place defines them. It is as much a part of them as their DNA. They are connected to the land like Scarlet O’Hara was. My own family is the same. We have called the same area of Georgia home since the 1700’s, but we are scattered now. No longer do people remain, as their grandparents did before them, in the places where they are raised, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

When I went home in March, I knew I knew the Sandersville of my memory was different than the Sandersville I would encounter, but what I hadn’t counted on was feeling like the Prodigal son, someone who had squandered the fortune I had inherited, in this case my heritage. I was an outsider after a five year absence. Of course, I’ve been gone longer than that, but for five years I had not been home even for a visit. The recession and unemployment hit my immediate family pretty hard. I wanted to return, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t justify spending the money when I was just homesick.

People from the South are born there, live their lives there, and raise families there. Rarely does anyone decide to move away and make their home elsewhere, but I did. When I went back to my hometown, I knew both people and places had changed. What I hadn’t counted on though was how much I have changed. I’m proud of having left and made something of myself in a place where no one knew me, but I miss my people, my family and relatives and my friends and their families.

Sandersville has changed, but that’s no surprise. What I’m most concerned about is that at some point my “home,” the place where I grew up, the place that molded me into who I am today will no longer be home. What if I stay away so long that my friends don’t recognize me, that I’ll be an outlander, an alien in a familiar place?

I have vowed to return home one day, but one day seems farther away than ever before. One day I will walk again in the footsteps of my ancestors, drink in the soft air of a southern spring, feel the thunder rumble beneath my feet as a summer thunderstorm brings sweet relief from the heat of the day, and feel the mists of winter rise over the hay fields at the end of the day. One day.