My Grams glanced up from her newly planted irises, her blue eyes spotting her 7-8-9-something-year-old grandson across the yard.
Bent down, I went through her garden in search of villainous weeds. Doing as I was told, I was on a search and destroy mission that summer day. Upon locating one of the many floral invaders, I descended from the heavens and with my godlike power vanquished my foes by plucking their flowering tops from their stems. I was the Anti-Mother Nature, the God of Floral Decimation (or at least, that’s what I was pretending to pass the time).
Grams gave a small laugh before rising from the flowerbed, approaching me. I looked to her, boasting that I had ruthlessly rid the garden of weeds. She gave me a smile, looking down at a decapitated dandelion whose head I still clutched in my palm (after blowing away its wish-granting seeds, of course).
“To get rid of a weed, you have to uproot it.” Grams explained.
In a demonstration, she grabbed hold of the dandelion stem and yanked, revealing the earthen underbelly of the plant. “Otherwise,” she chimed,” it will live here forever.” I sighed, disappointed that my godly flower power had failed me.
* * *
Approximately a decade later, my grandmother’s advice about weeds began to echo in my mind. College application week was nearing, and I sat at my desk drowning in irresolution. My nerves were racing faster than my anxiety medicine could keep up. I wasn’t sleeping. I sat at a crossroads of three colleges:
- 1. Hampden–Sydney College (Virginia, 8 hours and 5 minutes away from home).
- 2. East Tennessee State University (Johnson City, 4 hours and 6 minutes away from home)
- 3. Tennessee Technological University (Cookeville, 45 minutes away from home) I jumped as my bedroom door creaked open and my mother poked her head in. “School night,” she reminded me in her teacher’s voice. Either the bags under my eyes or
my eyes themselves betrayed me because my mother saw straight through me. She sat down on the bed, moving my chair to face her. She smiled, assuring me that I would know the right school soon. It would come to me.
I didn’t believe her.
My uncle lived alone in Johnson City, in a doctor’s salary-sized house. I would have plenty of space, live with my favorite relative, and attend ETSU comfortably on a hefty scholarship. Those were the pros. The cons consisted of me moving four hours away from home, an idea mom didn’t like. Hampden-Sydney was in the same boat — good scholarships and a long distance from home.
I thought about the weeds.
Merriam-Webster defines the verb uproot as both “to pull up by the roots” and as “to displace from a country or traditional habitat” (1).
My hometown is unincorporated, and my familiar ties combined with my relative isolation from the outside world reinforced a home-centric mentality. My mother wanted me to attend Tennessee Tech. Cheaper, closer to home, and with classmates of mine already planning to attend, TTU provided me with a safety net I couldn’t resist. Plus, I could come home every weekend to do my laundry.
In some ways, I guess I tugged at my roots when I moved out. Even the small gesture of moving less than an hour away, to a campus I had been to countless times prior, was still a movement. In doing so, I also grew.
Within the confines of my hometown, I was fated to be in the closet forever. Unable to fathom disappointing my parents, I even majored in something I had no interest in. My mother wanted me to become a teacher, move back home after college, and teach at the only high school in my county. For a time, that was my plan too. Be the perfect son.
However, I think growth is synonymous with change. Within my first semester, I began dating my first boyfriend. Within a few years, I got the courage to tell my mother I was dropping education to become an English major. I no longer went home every weekend.
Late one night in my Grams’ cigarette smoke saturated den, I said that I no longer felt like my hometown was home anymore. My house was now my parents’ home, and my Cookeville apartment felt like mine.
Grams lifted a cigarette from her ashtray, tendrils of wispy smoke drifting in the light of the lamp beside her. Like the old gardener she was, she grinned at me.
“When we are no longer growing, we must uproot,” she replied.
I agreed. Upon high school graduation, my root system had matured beyond the soils of my hometown. My time at TTU nurtured me, allowed me to branch out and bloom. However, as I left Grams’ house that night, I realized I felt safe and still. I was a sapling tree that officially was getting too big for its pot, and soon, I would have the chance to uproot once more.
* * *
A year later, I am a senior in college. I have about two semesters left to decide what graduate school I want to attend. In like manner to my high school days, I can hear Grams’ words. Except, now I have the power to decide where to go, how far to go, or if I want to go at all.
Colleges like New York University or Bowdoin fascinate me, not only for their graduate programs but the adventure they would offer. To leave everything that I know behind and start anew. I want to submerge in the unknown, dive in both headfirst and headstrong.
However, every time I start thinking about leaving, I am reminded that some roots can never truly be severed. The idea of being so far from my loved ones makes my heart physically ache. I have reconnected to my parents over the last year, and things have finally settled down back home.
Change is a cruel beast, and usually comes right when you get comfortable. After moving away from my first house when I was fourteen, I developed a hatred for adaptation. The process of starting anew, and growing accustomed to a foreign environment is my least favorite feeling. With such a major disruption of normalcy approaching, I have begun to wonder if my excitement comes from my control of the situation this time around, or if it truly hasn’t hit me that my life will completely change come next winter.
Looking back upon my years of growth and movement, I can agree on one thing. The connections you form with people, the memories you have of a place, the love you have for others– those are your roots. Some things are so deeply inlaid in the ground that nothing can unearth them, even child-gods of floral destruction.
Even in these moments of wanderlust and homesickness, I find solace in Grams’ words. When we are no longer growing, we must uproot.
I have a few months before I begin applying to grad school. I don’t know if graduation from TTU will complete my growth here. I doubt I’ll know the answer then anyway. From a plant preparing his pilgrimage, I offer up these words: Grow where you will, your roots will follow.