The Folklore Project
Notes from a Semi-Native Daughter
By Emma Sarappo
If you’re driving to my hometown, you’ll probably take U.S. Route 31/41A, which blazes straight through town from the north. The first thing you’ll see at the town limit is our (new) “Welcome to Nolensville” sign. The old one was white with blue lettering, proudly proclaiming the 200-year gap between our settlement in 1796 and our incorporation in 1996. The road, in this stretch south of Nashville, is called Nolensville Pike. Next, you’ll see our new streetlights fly “Historic Nolensville” banners as the speed limit drops to a leisurely 30 mph. The limit was more important when Nolensville Road was a road that took people through here, not to here, but now it’s an obligation to roll through slowly and appreciate the growth of the town’s main drag. To reinforce the message, you’re made to stop at the town’s very first traffic light, on the corner of Nolensville and Sunset Road. I watched that one go up. We have three now.
I want to recall wistfully a time before my little town got so big, but sometimes that desire feels shameful. I’ve only been here for 10 years. I have experienced much of it through car windows and pictures. I watch it transform and remember that I was one of its early carpetbaggers.
Home is complicated for me. No portion of the world is really mine. I am a native daughter of nowhere. I have no continuous, physical heritage or sense of place. I have, in the last decade, grabbed on tight to Nolensville, the only place I might be able to call my home. My roots there are shallow and fragile, although I have thrived in the soil I fell on. This is especially disorienting in a place where other family trees reach deep into the earth around us.
My parents aren’t really “from” anywhere, either. My mother was born in Trondheim, Norway, in the late ’60s. I was born American, but I also hold a Norwegian passport, though I cannot speak a word of the language and I’ve only been there three times, feeling increasingly aware of my foreign status with each trip. I am not an immigrant, and I cannot claim that land as mine. My father is from the East Coast; specifics are hard to pin down, because my grandparents constantly moved their six children around, and at various times my father grew up in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, England, and France. He went to college in Philadelphia and often claims it as his hometown, but his childhood stories are from Teaneck, Ridgewood, London, and Paris. His teams are the Mets and the Eagles, both arbitrary picks. I’m not from his home, either, wherever that may be.
So I tentatively call the greater Nashville area home, and if I feel particularly brave, Nolensville specifically. It feels most truthful to give that title to the place that shaped me and watched me turn into an adult. Still, I worry that I am just another in a long line of transplants claiming we were the last ones who should have moved to town. Does just wanting to be from somewhere make it true?
I was 10 when I moved to Nolensville, and my first impression of my new town was dirt — that and decaying, empty barns. The initial image came from all the development. The dirt was constantly scooped out of the earth by hulking machines and piled up in front of flimsy erosion fences. The first time I saw our new home, it was an enclosed rectangle of dirt. “Lot 148,” it said. When we’d visit in the summer, the wind would blow that dirt in our eyes, over our shoes, and into our car; what would later become sidewalks remained compacted dirt for years.
Most of the barns were unkempt wooden structures falling apart but stubbornly still standing, adorned with kudzu and peeling paint. I was horrified. From the backseat of the family car, I pointedly wondered why this rural blight wasn’t taken down. I was really asking why we had to move to a rural, blighted town at all. I’d count barns on the 40-minute, back-road drive to school from my old house on the mornings while our new one remained unfinished. There was one by the cemetery, overgrown with vines, and another across the street with the word “BUSH” spray-painted (and poorly covered) on the side. In short, I was sure we were moving to a hellhole, middle-of-nowhere, redneck town, and I was mad.
We’d picked the hellhole, middle-of-nowhere, redneck town for two reasons: its affordability and its public schools. My dad made a 90-minute trip each morning between the beginning of school and our move-in date, driving from Hermitage to Nolensville to his office in Nashville, to drop my brother and I off at the new Nolensville Elementary school building. My parents made the decision to move when I wasn’t selected in the lottery for a high-performing magnet school in the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. I was put on track for a failing junior high and a high school with metal detectors at its entrances. The summer after fourth grade, we packed up and moved southwest. All the other students not picked in the lottery but with fewer means — or worse credit — stayed put.
In that new building, my fifth-grade class learned about Nolensville history: In 1796, William Nolen drove his wagon out from Nashville. It was a hard trek for his horse and wife, but he was making good progress until his wagon wheel broke. He got out of the wagon, saw Mill Creek, and decided this was as good a place as any to settle down. He probably also loved being able to name the land Nolensville. Then farmers moved in, the smaller ones living off the land, the large landowners growing cotton and tobacco using slaves, and then there was a war between brothers (although those slaves were never considered brothers), which is valorized although the nearby Battle of Franklin went terribly for the Confederates and Tennessee was the first state recaptured by the Union. Then there were more farmers, and two World Wars, and dairy and meat farming, and then a subdivision built in the ’80s right off the two-lane U.S. route 31/41A, and a growing community school. Then, toward the end of the millennium, another subdivision, and then the turn of the century and dozens of subdivisions and a brand-new elementary school where fifth graders were taught about William Nolen and forced to sing in Veteran’s Day concerts on their birthdays, nine days after they moved to their new town.
My parents met in Los Angeles, and I was born in Pasadena, California. When I was a toddler, they uprooted themselves once again and drove across the country in an SUV and a moving van to settle in suburban Nashville — and then, in an unprecedented move for both of them, they stayed. My brother was born here, and we’ve lived in two different houses in the last two decades. Still, we weren’t raised like Southerners. I don’t think my parents ever imagined we would be.
We certainly don’t sound like Southerners. My dad has the rapid-fire cadence and volume of a Jersey man, softened by multiple moves and years away from the area. My mother’s accent is a strange combination of the thick regional accent of her Norwegian and the British English she was taught since she was young. The two have melted into a more neutral tone after close to 30 years in the U.S. When I’m tired or stressed, a Southern twang will spill out of my mouth, but for the most part, I speak neutrally and clearly — just like we were taught to.
I grew up thinking Southerners were hicks who had crowns on their baby teeth. I got this stereotype from many places, but my parents certainly encouraged it. My dad would try to play it off as a joke, but he’d always check our public-school textbooks to make sure there were no references to “the War of Northern Aggression” or intelligent design in place of evolutionary theory. I knew I was smart, had no accent, and had unblemished baby teeth, so the algebra seemed simple: I wasn’t a Southerner. In my head, I made fun of my classmates who said things like “ain’t” and “y’all.” If I had come home from my Tennessee public school saying “y’all” to my parents, they would have been horrified. As I grew older and watched the way the region treated the kind of person I was growing up to be, I further distanced myself. I longed to live in a blue state, one where slave plantations weren’t tourist attractions and religion didn’t underwrite every social interaction. I lived here, but I never thought I was from here.
That’s why I never cared about Nolensville changing — until it changed when I wasn’t looking. I came back from my first quarter of college to a very different place than the one I’d left. Part of my shock rose from how I’d always imagined it as a static, backward place, one I couldn’t wait to escape. This fit the narrative of the suburban American hometown: An idyllic town is supposed to stay the same as you become different. It functions as an anchor, a reality check, a yardstick against which you measure your growth. However, mine disobeyed. Mine morphed into something nearly unrecognizable.
At the 2000 census — four years after the town’s incorporation — Nolensville had 2,309 people. In 2010, including the four Sarappos, that number increased to 5,861. Today, the population is estimated at over 7,000 people.
People came seeking the same things we did, and with them came development. When I moved to Nolensville, town hall was a rented strip-mall retail space — now we have a towering three-story building. There was one fast-food restaurant in town, Sonic, which served as the post-activity watering hole for kids, vaguely unsupervised hangout spot for teens, and caffeine pit stop for adults; now even the Sonic’s gone bougie — it’s been redone and has three lanes of car stalls. The First Tennessee Bank next to the post office and library has been completely remodeled. The houses in “Historic Nolensville” have all been rezoned retail and turned into antique stores, boutiques, toy shops, and more. The big red barn on Clovercroft Road was sold to a developer, who tore it down to make way for a new subdivision. A mixed retail-residential complex is going in the center of town soon.
I suppose these are good things, but I can’t shake the selfish thought that these new residents don’t have the same appreciation I have for the place. This fall, at one of Nolensville High School’s first football games — the school opened in August — a teen made local news by holding a sign that said “PLEASE STOP MOVING HERE.” Although the sentiment was hotly debated in the town Facebook group, I immediately agreed. Suddenly there was an “us” and a “them,” and despite all the times I’d never felt part of Nolensville’s “us,” I certainly wasn’t “them.” The boundary was simple: I was from here; newcomers were not.
Newcomers don’t — and won’t — have the same memories I do. When I was 11, I traipsed up the creek behind my backyard, then hopped a barbed-wire fence into a cow pasture whose owners hadn’t yet sold to developers and threw rocks into a frozen-over pond. Nolensville was never pedestrian- or bicycle-friendly (and still isn’t), but when I was 15 I rode my bike two miles to meet my friends for complimentary chips and salsa at the inauthentic Mexican restaurant, Campo Azul. I rode a scooter over pockmarked asphalt to my friend Gracelyn’s house when I couldn’t get a ride, and a few years later, walked there through another fenced field when a cold snap left us snowed in (by three inches of unmelting ice — this is not a town that invests in a snowplow or salt) for a week straight.
These memories make it feel like mine — more mine, at least, than it is theirs. I still don’t know what about the concept of “home” makes it feel finite, as if it belongs to me, it cannot also belong to someone else. I think I’m desperate to anchor myself into something solid, and ownership is the only way I know how to think of it. It’s the only way William Nolen understood it: seize the land, drive off its natural inhabitants, and settle. It’s a violent history. Neither of us were native to this place, but it hooked us and reeled us in. In response, we drove our stakes equally deep into the ground. It doesn’t belong to any of us, really, but we’re determined to call it ours. There’s probably a lesson in that.
So now that I want to claim Nolensville, it’s hard to put how I used to think of it aside. I still do not relate to most of its people. I was not brought up in a household that cared about monogrammed pillows, worried about explicit lyrics, or publicly aired the traffic violations of its neighbors. I am many things this region does not tolerate well: queer, a woman, a feminist, a liberal, an atheist, to name a few. I watch the town Facebook group, the Nolensville 411, with amusement and frustration from far away — dutifully saving the most absurd screenshots in my desktop folder “Nolensville 411 foolishness” — but I feel more like an anthropologist than a neighbor. How can I be “from” somewhere that doesn’t want me?
I’ve started to realize it’s not the people or community I’m attached to. Instead, the land has a certain hold on my imagination. Its cicada-scored summers, its climate, its unique atmosphere all keep me captivated. Images of catching fireflies in my backyard, ragweed seeds clinging to my bare feet, will not leave me. I can’t forget the view of a sunrise from a Chattanooga porch on a house tucked far back into its acreage, linked to the main road only by a snakelike gravel driveway, and the grand arches of the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge make my throat tight. Humid days that double the size of my hair, the anvil of an approaching thunderhead propelled by hot winds, cascading waterfalls, and cool river streams remind me of home, always. That earth is always tugging me home, from as far away as the mountains of Panama, where all it took was a barbed-wire fence around a cow pasture on a mountain to bring me back. As for the residents of Nolensville, what we all have in common — if anything — is the land we live on and the way we feel about it.
And I use “y’all” as a matter of principle now.
When I drive home, from suburban Chicago down I-65 to Nashville, my heart swells as the land begins to change from Midwestern plains to rolling hills. I, quite literally, feel more at ease as the landscape develops — too many flat horizons make me jumpy. My home is throat-tighteningly beautiful, even from an interstate. The cousins of the Appalachians begin to roll upward from just outside of Nashville, where a geologic dome became the Central Basin. The moment you start heading in any direction away from the city you are moving upward to the Highland Rim, and this small gain in elevation is breathtaking, because you look back and suddenly realize you were stuck in a giant fishbowl. The land meanders upward around Monteagle and Sewanee, marked by thick forests and waterfalls where the water table thrusts up. From there, the state jerks upward again to the Cumberland Plateau, and it is this vista of escarpments and bluffs and tree-covered waves — that’s what they look like, tree-topped waves rolling on and on and on — that I love most.
I’ve been to both the western and eastern borders of Tennessee, one of the longest states in the Union. I once took 41-A from my home in Nolensville all the way up to Sewanee, the path travelers took before Interstate 24 cut through the country, just because I wanted to enjoy the scenery. In fourth grade, I did a project on Tennessee’s state emblems; I can still name the state tree (tulip poplar), motto (Agriculture and Commerce), animal (raccoon), flower (iris), and first governor (John Sevier). Since I was 12, I’ve read The Tennessean at breakfast. I can name the six physical regions of the state, thanks to the salt-dough map I made in sixth grade, and I can identify the birds of the region on sight. Last summer, I bought a book on Tennessee geography for a light read.
Nolensville is home because it left a relief map somewhere deep in my heart. I live in the Midwest now, but when I dream, I see hills.
Emma Sarappo is an intern with The Bitter Southerner this summer in Atlanta.