Times Free Press columnist Mark Kennedy poses near the town square in his hometown, Columbia, Tenn. / Contributed photo by Keeling Kennedy

The old Dairy Queen restaurant in my hometown of Columbia, Tennessee, is now a liquor store. Goodbye, Blizzards; hello, bourbon.

The former post office/federal building in Columbia morphed into a bank. It looks like a giant, limestone vault. A former hardware store on the town square has turned into a Puckett's Restaurant — from nuts and bolts to beans and greens.

Derryberry Dependable Drugs, where I scrubbed toilets and stocked prescription vials while I was in junior high and high school in the 1970s, is completely gone. It's now an alley with tables for outdoor dining.

Oh my.

This is what happens when you don't visit your hometown for 14 years — or pay much attention for 45 years. They rearrange your memories.

Until my mother died in 2006, I was a semi-regular visitor to Columbia, where I lived from birth to age 18 and worked in manufacturing plants during college summers. Since my mother died, I've had no practical reason to visit Columbia, and it took over a decade and a half for deep homesickness to kick in.

For the last six months, I've had this growing feeling — almost a compulsion — that I needed to return. At 62, I recognize this as an older-person impulse. Like a lot of people, I spent half my life adult running away from my hometown and the other half realizing that a part of me never left.

Columbia is the county seat of Maury County. It's about 40 miles south of Nashville, a coordinate I've repeated so many times that it almost seems part of the proper name in my mind: "I'm from Columbia 40 Miles South of Nashville."

When I was growing up, Maury County was home to several chemical-processing plants but was mostly farmland. Now, the county is an automotive-industry hub, home to a General Motors assembly plant — formerly Saturn — and a distant exurb of Nashville. (For scale, Columbia is about the population of Cleveland, Tennessee.)

My older son got a nice camera for Christmas, and I decided to ask him for a father/son day so we could drive over to Middle Tennessee and take photos around Columbia. To my delight, he said, "Sure."

"OK then," I said, "we'll leave Saturday morning about 8 or 9."

Our 19-year-old grimaced.

"OK, 10," I said.

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The Duck River which cuts through Columbia, Tenn., is the longest river fully contained in the Volunteer State. / Contributed photo by Keeling Kennedy

When we are younger, learning family history is not much of a priority. When we are older, handing down stories is an involuntary act. My secret mission for the trip was to tell my older son about his Middle Tennessee forebears.

One of our first stops in Columbia was an overlook on the banks of the Duck River. As I watched the muddy water rush by, my 19-year-old son walked around me to photograph a leafless hardwood tree silhouetted against the sky.

Two blocks away, we saw the duplex where I grew up. I was hoping for gentrification, but the beige house looked smaller than I remembered, with long curtains hung between the pillars on the wraparound porch.

"Oh," I thought.

I showed my son a storm sewer under Second Avenue that we used to play inside as kids.

"Are you sure you fit in there?" he said.

"Yep," I said.

A couple of blocks away we visited my elementary school, which had been torn down and rebuilt half a block away.

"It used to flood from the river," I explained. "They essentially moved it to higher ground."

Next, we crossed a bridge across the Duck River and I showed him the spot near downtown where I had my first fender bender.

"I was in my Datsun B-210," I said. "Bought it new for $1,800."

"Wow, I wish new cars were still $1,800," my son said.

Downtown is where I found gentrification. The courthouse square felt like it had been repurposed for tourists. There is a flag store and a record store and a place to buy ice cream.

We went to look at the homes of my two grandmothers and then drove out to Columbia Central High School, where I graduated in 1976.

Then it was off to the ballfields where I played Little League baseball.

"It's hard to believe I sat in those exact dugouts 50 years ago," I said.

"Yep," my son agreed.

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Downtown Columbia, Tenn., about 40 miles south of Nashville, has become a magnet for tourists and locals. / Contributed photo by Keeling Kennedy

We also visited my parents' graves.

I bent down to pick the grass around the headstones. Soon, I felt my son kneeling beside me, and I saw his fingers pinching at the grass, too.

I knelt for a minute, prayed and wiped tears away. When I stood up, my son put an arm around my waist. It was the first flicker of the tables turning in our relationship, from father-and-son to friend-to-friend.

Soon, we packed up the car and headed back to East Tennessee.

When you are younger, you assume you will always circle back to things. But, eventually, life robs you of spontaneity and opportunity. It is possible, although not probable, that I will never visit Columbia again.

But that's OK. For a day, my older son got to see my hometown and hear me talk about family members that he has never known.

He napped on the drive home.

One day in 2050, I mused on the drive back, my son might bring a child of his own back to Chattanooga, his hometown.

And together, they may kneel down and pick at the weeds around my grave.

I can hear it in the wind:

"My dad was a writer, you know." ... .

Email Mark Kennedy at

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Mark Kennedy / Staff file photo