Fairly soon after I moved to Chattanooga, an old friend called me up and asked one very pertinent question:
"What the hell are you doing living in Tennessee?"
She's known me a long time.
While there are many places I have fantasized about living, I must confess the Bible Belt South was never one of them. I doubt anyone who knows me would be shocked to hear that. Coming here was a leap of faith, in more ways than one.
So I never expected to move to Tennessee. I never expected to stay as long as I have. And I certainly never expected to be sad to leave.
Yeah, I know. Way to bury the lede, Leber.
Nearly five years after moving to Chattanooga, and 14 years after leaving home, I'm heading back to New York. What was it that Thomas Wolfe said? You can't go home again? With all due respect, I hope he was wrong.
But it feels like it's time. Time to be closer to my family, for my sister and me to actually live in the same city as adults. Time for Joe and me to get on with turning our hopes and plans into realities. And it's time for a different challenge, professionally.
I've accepted a position with a trade publication in Manhattan. It's quite different from the work I've been doing for the Times Free Press. I have a lot to learn, and I'm looking forward to getting started.
I've certainly learned a lot here. I think I've grown as a writer and a reporter. I've met strangers who became colleagues who became friends. I've watched this company experience moments of triumph and others of struggle.
I've also had the opportunity to interact with a lot of readers. Some have been very positive and encouraging -- "I believe I notice in your column a strong and consistent whiff of independence," one gentleman, a retired journalist, wrote. "Also a certain freshness. Along with small examples of true insight traveling in company with intelligence and gentleness."
Others less so -- "Why would you allow her to write and print such trash?" a lady asked. "Just send her back north ..."
Some have been kind of creepy -- the gentleman who asked me to send him clippings of articles on Taylor Swift "for my daughters" comes to mind.
And some have just been great for a laugh. I think my favorite was the man who didn't quite understand that, just because I write about gardens doesn't mean I'm a gardening expert, and no, no sir, you may not bring bugs to my office for me to identify.
By the way, if the lady or gentleman who has sent me multiple clippings of my articles in which you anonymously critiqued both my grammar and my sartorial choices (we'll have to agree to disagree on the hat) would be so kind as to come forward, I'd love to know your name.
Living in the South, though unexpected, has been both educational and amusing for this quintessential Northern lady. I might find myself surprised when someone doesn't ask me what church I attend immediately upon introduction. I've learned that hearing someone refer to macaroni salad as a vegetable makes my soul hurt, and that only in the South will I ever have someone specify that "lion dancing" is not the same thing as "line dancing."
And yes, I've learned to decipher about 90 percent of the accents here. Joe and I still laugh about the first week in Chattanooga, asking for directions and having trouble understanding the accent for "a right at the light." I have not, however, learned to slow down my speech, and I thank those who have contended with me.
Over the past couple of months, I've spent time looking around and thinking to myself that this really is a pretty great town. It's just far from home, mostly. Chattanooga, Massachusetts. That's my big idea. Or stick it outside New York City. No one needs New Jersey.
I've seen this city grow in wonderful ways in my relatively short time here. I've tried to get friends to come visit, often to no avail. You think I'm a stubborn Yankee woman? You have no idea. I think some of my friends are under the impression they'll be smote if they set foot below the Mason-Dixon line.
And sure, there are those who probably would do some smiting. Or at least some aggressive praying. But I have also met some genuinely good people here, and I'll miss them when I leave.
"You're never coming back here," said Karen, my "work mom," and it was more a statement than a question.
I hope I'll come back to visit. I certainly plan to. Of course, we also plan to stay friends with people from high school. But I'd be surprised if I never set foot in Chattanooga again. Surprised and sad.
Recently, I found myself trying to explain my relationship with this town to a very close friend.
"Imagine how you'll feel about my children," I said. "You'll love them, but they won't be yours. That's how I feel about Chattanooga. I love it, but it's not wholly mine."
I don't quite know how to wrap up. Along with the boxes to be packed, there's a desk to clean out, two more days of work after this column prints, and more thanks and goodbyes to be said than I will be able to handle.
So ... that's it, I suppose. All good things.