For most people the concept of a hometown isn’t complicated.
It's where you’re born and where you go to school. It's the place you spend your growing up years.
But the idea of a hometown has always felt a little strange to me, as my school years were divided almost in half.
At age 12, I found myself in a new town, one that I had only passed through a couple of times.
A few weeks from a new school year, my mom and I relocated to this place -- the little northwest Georgia city of Ringgold -- so we could be closer to her family.
I didn’t want to change schools, particularly since life as a seventh-grader is hard enough without having to start all over again.
That first year wasn’t easy. I didn’t know anyone and no one knew me.
I was painfully shy and some people made fun of me because I was “the new girl,” among other reasons.
But not everyone was mean. There were some kids who were nice and I made a few friends.
We lived just one street over my school, Ringgold Middle, and what a couple years later would become my high school, Ringgold High.
I was able to walk to and from school each day, which was an exciting adventure, since before I had to take the bus or ride with mom.
Yet Ringgold didn’t feel like a hometown. I missed the friends from my old school.
Time rolled on and so did the classes, which I had to admit were pretty cool. We had drama class at this new school. And there were art and computer courses. And I continued to make more friends.
There was a boy in my class who lived just up the road. He had a sister a year younger. The three of us started walking to and from school together and became great friends.
That summer, we had many adventures together, walking around that little town nestled beneath the north Georgia foothills.
Most often, we walked the couple miles to the city swimming pool and would stop at a place called Chow Time, an old fashioned drive-in that had been around for about 50 years.
They made the best cherry milkshakes, the perfect treat after a long, hot day at the pool.
Ringgold was one of those towns where people felt safe letting their children walk around unattended. It was kind of like Mayberry on the old “Andy Griffith Show.”
Most everyone knew each other, and you waved at passers-by even if you didn't know them.
My sophomore year in high school I joined the Ringgold Marching Tiger Band. I continued to make more friends and also joined a couple clubs.
By this time, the old town from which I had moved years earlier had faded and Ringgold felt like home.
You’ve probably heard about Ringgold in the past week. It was one of several places in north Georgia hit by massive tornadoes.
While I haven’t lived there for about 12 years, and don’t have family in the immediate area, it has been difficult seeing the news footage and the photos my high school friends have posted online.
Several walls of Ringgold Middle and High have collapsed. According to news reports, a wing of the middle school is gone.
The press box at the football stadium was blown off, landing in the parking lot. The field house near the baseball fields was destroyed.
Chow Time sustained heavy damage, as did most of the offices and homes downtown, as well as restaurants and hotels in the business area near Interstate 75.
The places my friends and I hung out after school are gone, flattened. Classrooms where I studied have collapsed or just vanished.
One of my friends noted that “Ringgold as we knew it is no more.” He went on to say “Guyler Street is rubble.”
That was my street. That was where I lived for 13 years.
It’s hard to digest, knowing that the room where my girlfriends and I sat -- door shut and locked away from mom’s ears, sharing all our teenage secrets -- is just a pile of rubble.
More devastating than the property losses is the human toll.
At least eight people died in the tornado. I don’t know any of them, but my heart goes out to their families and friends.
It’s hard to know what to do when something like this happens. It’s as if the memories themselves have somehow been destroyed, crushed and crumpled like the buildings.
It seems all I’ve done is cry while looking at the images. Then I pray, and then cry and pray some more.
I’m praying for the families who lost loved ones. For everyone who lost a home or a business. For city leaders as they work to try and rebuild those schools, my schools. For friends and their families who still live there. For emergency workers. For hope.
And I’m asking Forsyth County to join me in praying for this little town, not too far away, and not much unlike our city of Cumming.
Our thoughts, goodwill, support and, perhaps most importantly, our prayers are needed by the people of Ringgold -- my hometown.
Crystal Ledford is a staff writer at the Forsyth County News.