Lately, I’ve been remembering my first apartment-hunting trip to Nashville. When my husband and I visited from Seattle last spring, we walked prospective neighborhoods to suss out their congeniality to everyday living: density of restaurants and bars, green spaces, pedestrian safety. I think of the building we chose, a modern, block-wide apartment complex in a lovely area called Germantown, an ideal commercial-residential hybrid, small enough in scale to become quickly knowable. And I picture our former home as it stands now: unoccupied, silent and dark, windows blown out, surrounding streets scattered with debris—utterly unrecognizable as the hub of urban bustle it was mere weeks ago.
We didn’t know, last May, playing tourist in our future city, that we had chosen to dwell directly in the path of the severe tornado that would strike a narrow strip of the downtown Nashville corridor eight months after our arrival. We couldn’t predict that as Monday, March 2, rolled into Tuesday, March 3, violent lightning and winds, and then a sound like a freight train bearing down on our living room, would drag us from our sleep. That we would walk to the window, buckling in its frame, crack the blinds, and find the building’s interior courtyard transformed into a violent, whirling, malevolent funnel of pool and patio furniture.
Even the next morning, when we absorbed the full measure of the devastation to our corner of the neighborhood—roof-stripping, business-shuttering devastation—we didn’t realize we’d be displaced from our apartment for good. Shattered glass crunched beneath our shoes; power lines lay like dead snakes on the sidewalk. But the building appeared structurally intact.
It was, it turned out, but it didn’t matter. The city deemed the building uninhabitable, and the management company decided (wisely, I believe) that repairing the extensive damage, much of which was structural, required the permanent removal of all residents. So, with the help of some saintly local volunteers, we packed all our things, as well as our anxious dog and cat, and transitioned first to a grubby hotel near the airport, then to a unit in another complex owned by the same company a few miles south of our old place.
Tremendous luck has bounded our brush with nature’s fury. We are safe, together, financially solvent. Support from family and friends, not to mention decent renter’s insurance, has helped build a bridge back to the unthinking dailiness of our pre-storm existence.
But since the tornado, I’ve been experiencing a sensation akin to floating. Sometimes I see myself as an object drifting through the ether, a piece of flotsam, unmoored in time and space. Moving across the country last summer carried the customary shocks of relocation: unfamiliar scenery, new traffic patterns, homesickness. And for a Northerner by birth and rearing, sudden immersion in the sights and rituals of Southern living demanded its own adjustment. The voices of Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton flowed from the street-facing speakers of downtown bars. Meat came fried or smothered in barbecue sauce. Stately churches crowned every other corner, their lawns swelling with well-dressed congregants on Sundays. The humidity. My Jewishness. All these combined, in varying proportions, to create an irreducible sense of otherness that followed me everywhere.
Then came the twister, and the ensuing uprooting. Another new neighborhood to adapt to, with odd avenues and unknown faces at the grocery store. Of course, COVID-19 quarantine precautions have only magnified the strangeness of everything. I suspect this double displacement is to blame for the untethered feeling that haunts, especially, my walks with the dog, as we navigate our new home’s absence of sidewalks. It’s in these moments, as I watch her furry snout inspect every yard, hydrant, and crosswalk, that I realize: She’d stopped doing this in Germantown, because we’d walked its every possible route before, over and over, until even her keen olfactory curiosity was sated. Like me, she knew the heavenly scent of the cookie factory on our block; the shouts of the construction workers on Sixth, installing a balcony; the mural on a brick facade that changed with the seasons. We greeted them each day like friends, together declaring our place in the ecosystem of the neighborhood.
The further we travel through time from our life in Germantown, the more it reveals itself, to my surprise, as the place I belonged. I’ve discovered our intimacy through estrangement.
Germantown is a small square of about five by five blocks immediately north of Nashville’s downtown heart, which hosts the Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and Broadway’s neon strip of honky-tonks and boot stores. Insulated from the tourist hubbub by Jefferson Street, a major thoroughfare and site of many historic black-owned businesses, Germantown has grown like mad—by which I mostly mean gentrified—in the last few years, though the population remains diverse. Its northwestern edge abuts the Cumberland River, the slow, sludgy ribbon of brown that winds sinusoidally through the city and beyond. European immigrants settled the subdivision in the mid-19th century and left their mark in the form of commanding brick townhomes and civic buildings.
There was one house that took on an outsize role in my imagination. Grander than its nearby peers and clad head to toe in the august red brick favored by the area’s German settlers, it overshadowed the rest of the block’s abodes, all perfectly lovely and enviable in their own way. But this one called to me, not least because of the lush urban garden that occupied an area at least as large as the house’s footprint, protected by the Land Trust of Tennessee. I made a point of passing the house on my walks. The dog and I would stand at the garden fence, peering in at the expanse of well-tended verdure that defied the pragmatism and profit motive of the concrete jungle. Who lived here? we wondered. Could we, too, one day be keepers of an acre-wide paradise?
I haven’t been back since the tornado hit. For a while, the roads were closed, and then I couldn’t bear it. In any case, I hold the memories close: the brick house, the stoop drinkers, their canine complements, the church crowds, the abandoned riverfront lot that served as a de facto public park. Even our idiot neighbor who invited over so many guests to kick up such a racket at 3 a.m. we had to call security. You haven’t lived somewhere until you’ve lodged a formal complaint with management.
Sometimes I even summon the antiseptic musk of the old building, a harsh odor that irked me at first but that, at some point, I became unable to smell. Maybe home is the place you don’t see because it’s all around you, like the fish who asks, “What’s water?” Until it’s gone—when you learn, terribly and at once, that it was the thing sustaining you, giving shape and color to your days. I harbor no delusions that Germantown will miss me, or even pause to notice my absence, but the parts of my brain that rewired along its geography refuse to quiet down, insisting on registering their objections to this latest exile. For now, I wait for their protests to settle into the quiet hum of nostalgia, and then, finally, into simple love for a chapter now ended.
Jennifer R. Bernstein is a writer of essays and criticism, and co-founder of The New Inquiry.