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Ayres HallFor some reason, May is a month of change for me.  Graduations are everywhere, professors and parents are sending off their young ones, preparing them for a world of work, education, and challenge.  They may not always make it known, but parents always have a spot in their hearts yearning for their children to come back home someday.

Parents don’t always know it, but sometimes the lessons and values they teach their children stick with them.  The warm feelings of hot chocolate on the couch during a cold wintery day and homemade potato soup for a sore throat stay with us for a long, long time to come.

Those warm feelings, memories, smells beckon me back time and time again to the country town where everyone knows each other on a first-name basis, if you run out of gas someone you know isn’t too far away, and there’s only a scarce few red lights you can run at night when no one is watching.  The smell of Red Door on a big sweater never fades; the smell of Old Spice mixed with old man never ages on a white button-down shirt, nor does the sound of Dad’s radio in the garage grow silent.  Things like that never go away.

It’s been three years since I graduated from high school and moved to Knoxville for furthering my education at the University of Tennessee.  Most of those three years I beat myself up for coming here over a guy I ended up breaking up with halfway through my sophomore year.  Sometimes I still regret my decision, at least, until Sunday night.

All students here at UT have thought about, at least once, about going on the roof of the esteemed Ayres Hall on the Hill.  It’s easily the highest point on campus, and it looks over all of downtown, campus, the Fort Sanders area, and beyond; it truly is a sight to take in for yourself.

My friends, Rob, and I (after roasting marshmallows at the Torchbearer, another UT landmark) roamed over to the Hill and parked.  We walked up the road, and since Ayres is under renovations and fenced off, we had to find a way through the fence.  We did, and after finding a way into the building, walked in.  We walked through the main area, up the flights of stairs until they ended on the third floor, then found an alternate, metal staircase that took us up to the fourth floor and ultimately the bell tower.

I have a fear of heights—and immense, horrifying fear of heights.  At this point, it was obvious that no one should have been allowed into that portion of the building, and I was getting nervous.  We were SO close to the top, but I couldn’t manage to muster the courage to climb the last few sets of steep stairs to the “dark room,” then the roof.

I just knew I wasn’t going to make it, and I would have stayed at the bottom until everyone made it to the top, then came back down.

One of the girls in the group came back down the stairs and gave me a pep talk.  “I’m not going to leave you down here alone,” she said, “but I’m not NOT going up there, either.”  Basically, I had no choice but to finish my climb and make my efforts worth something.

It was dark.  I was scared.  With what little light there was, I could see straight through the stairs and all the way to the bottom.  It was a long, long way down (for me, at least).

To her (and my) surprise, I decided I was going to finish my journey to the top.

I followed the people in front of me, and when I felt the rush of fresh, cool air hit my face I knew I had made it.

I climbed out of the hole and onto the flat roof.  The first thing I saw was Neyland Stadium below, then the sparkling river reflecting the light from the moon and stars, then Downtown Knoxville, and then the faces of the people I had made it with.
A smile crept across my face the way we crept around the Hill from the community service officer below.  And then excitement hit me.

If it hadn’t been for the fear of getting caught, I would have yelled from the roof top, “I’m the king of the world!”  It felt like I’d just climbed Mount Everest, and every time I pass by Ayres I smile and think of that night, the mischievousness,  the fear, the accomplishment, the view.  I was on top of the world, and after that I knew I had come to UT for a reason, if only for staring my fear straight in the face and conquering it.  Of course, I met the love of my life here, and I wouldn’t trade him for anything, but I feel like somewhere down the road we would have met anyway.

Since that night, I’ve been thinking a lot about the person I was when I graduated from high school.  I’m not the same person.  She would have never done anything like that; she was too timid and never did anything wrong.  The person I am today knows that life isn’t worth living if you can’t take risks, but knowing which risks to take is half the battle.  Some rules are meant to be broken.

But, sometimes in life, you need to go back home to get in touch with your roots, know where you came from and never forget it.  Remember the morals and beliefs you were raised with, because they are your foundation.  My brother once described my mother in one word: port.  She sends us off into the world, however, she’s always the place we go back to for stability.  For me, she’s the lighthouse.  She warns me of dangers nearby, but gives me a light to follow to come back home.  She’s my stability, my rock, my foundation.

Mom, I love you.  Always.

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Driving home this Sunday afternoon out of sheer spontaneity (well, close to it) made my heart race and sing out to a clear blue sky and trees adorned with bright red, orange and yellow leaves.  It’s autumn time in Tennessee.

I come from a place where everyone knows everybody else, much like Andy Griffith’s town of Mayberry.  There’s a total of maybe 4 red lights (one of which shouldn’t be operating, but that’s just my opinion) and a “downtown” consisting of a courthouse, post office and the corner ice cream/antique shop with a quaint barbershop next door complete with a barber pole on the side.  Imagine all that, plus three schools, a Hardee’s, Sonic and gas stations nestled inside rolling mountaintops guarded by a regional prison where my dad has worked for some 20 years now.  That’s where I come from:  Wartburg, Tennessee, a population that can fit inside Neyland Stadium with room for the rest of the county to spare.

The drive home Sunday showed me views I missed since moving to Knoxville.  Farms with old barns, junked-up cars (even an old camper, you know the ones, with a big “W” on the side) and the occasional sight of horses or cows made for perfect scenery.  With the car window rolled down driving on highway 62, I could smell the leaves blowing past my Ford Focus as I negotiated turns that weren’t made for the speed I was going at (It’s OK Mom, I do it all the time — I just wanted to get home to that homemade sourdough bread of yours).

Why I decided to go home Sunday only to drive an hour back to Knoxville I have no idea.  I suppose the simplicity of rural living called me back – in only a way homes can – to enjoy the changing of the seasons down by the river with friends, sharing warm kisses between sips of hot cocoa with Lance and watch the boys throw football under a canopy of gilded leaves.  Little treasures like that remind me that goodness does exist in a world of murders, theives and chaos.

I always enjoy stepping back into my warm childhood home after the brisk autumn air chills my skin.  There’s usually a warm, home-y aroma mixed with bread and cookies fresh from the oven and the promise of hot cider and wassail waiting to be enjoyed.  After reuniting with Fido and Nala after being months apart, Mom greets me with a warm hug and we make our way to the living room where the fireplace is warm, or the back porch where we can enjoy the weather, and simply catch up on our lives.

There’s a song that conveniently played on my iPod yesterday in the car, and I found it to be fitting.  It’s from a local band I’ve mentioned before, Christabel and the Jons.  It’s called, “Thankful.”  I’d say it was my theme yesterday…

“This is where I feel the most at home,
Rythym of the water, so nice and slow…”

“I’m thankful, so thankful, for my life..”

I drove past where my grandparents used to live before they passed away about ten years ago.  It hit me like a ton of bricks how much I missed them… my fondest memories of them are from this time of year and Christmas, when my grandma started cooking for an army of countless children, grand children and great grand children… Grandpa would always “test” the food… she would always get on to him for it… “Harold, get your finger outta that!” she’d say..  I remember she’d always sit in her rocking chair crocheting a doll or blanket for someone and watch The Price is Right (back when Bob Barker was the host.  It’s just not the same with Drew), Wheel of Fortune or during the day, Matlock.

You could always feel the love in their home.  It was small, but full of warmth – especially on those deep, cold winter nights.  My fondest memory I believe was when I was a small girl.  It was Christmas, and Wartburg’s Christmas parade was still something spectacular at my age.  That night was especially chilly, and I sat in Grandma and Grandpa’s old grey Ford to stay warm with Grandpa.  After the parade, we all went to their house (literally just across the woods from our house) for sweets and hot chocolate.  I don’t remember much except for what I told you just then, but I do remember everyone was happy.  I remember Grandpa laughing or at least smiling that big gummy grin of his (he had dentures but decided against wearing them — ever).  Grandma, of course, had a kitchen full of cookies, chocolate and treats I wouldn’t dare eat in one sitting today.  Everyone was there, and it was the perfect definition of family.

It was a tradition for a while with my immediate family after Grandma and Grandpa passed away to stay in an old, rustic cabin for a few days at Thanksgiving in the mountains somewhere.  Brandon and Steph were in school at Gardner-Webb University seeking their Masters of Divinity (they got it, by the way), so we always chose somewhere in Western North Carolina.  The first cabin we stayed in was tucked away somewhere in Black Mountain, North Carolina (I think) nearby Chimney Rock (again, I think it was Chimney Rock.  It was wherever they filmed Last of the Mohicans, I know that).  Unfortunately for me, I had tonselitis that year and didn’t get to enjoy it as much as I would’ve liked to… except for the fact that I thought I puked up my tonsils… but that’s another story.
Anyways, all six of us piled around a small kitchenette complete with a picnic-esque dining room table (I told you, this cabin was old and rustic) and shared Thanksgiving dinner that year.  The next morning, we awoke to snow flurries.  It was perfect.  There was just enough snow for a light 3/4 of an inch dusting, but not too much to worry about driving conditions.  We all took a walk through the woods among mountain laurel and a babbling brook that ran beside the cabin.

It was beautiful.

I hope to one day have the same kind of love and warmth that my family has had over the years.  It would only be right to carry on the family tradition.  It seems that not many families share that same love anymore, and that’s sad.  What the world needs now more than anything is love, sweet love.

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