While in high school, I somehow fell upon the great Christmas made-for-tv movie, A Smoky Mountain Christmas, starring Dolly Parton and Lee Marjors. In the film, Parton plays a famous country music star(quite an acting stretch) who wants to get away from the hoopla of her stardom, and returns home to her “Smoky Mountain” roots(again, quite a stretch). Ok, the movie is cheesy at best, but it has become my favorite Christmas movie of all time. Years ago, when my aunt, uncle and cousin began opting to spend Christmas every other year in Florida, I suggested to my mother and boyfriend at the time, that we rent a cabin in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, thus fulfilling my Smokey Mountain Christmas wish! What started that first year would become a family tradition up until the Christmas before my mother’s death.
My ex-boyfriend and I had just broken up, I had resigned from my career of 13 years and I wasn’t really sure what my next move in life was going to be. One thing was certain, although my ex and I had broken up, I still had a 3 bedroom cabin in the Smoky’s rented for a week at Christmas and I couldn’t get my deposit back, so my mom and I were going!
Recently I mentioned to a friend that on my blogs I tend to make my mother some Saint of Wisdom, always throwing out morsels of truth about the world and casting kindness and understanding everywhere. Although this is true, my mother was also nuts, this you must understand. I think out of respect I don’t paint a very honest picture of my mother. She talked incessantly, often driving those around her, usually my aunt and uncle, crazy. She was a very fearful person and was especially fearful of interstates, spiders, snakes and for some strange reason, being raped on an elevator. She could make total sense of James Joyce’s Ulysses’, but became unintelligible at the site of a wasp or spider. Probably with a nod to her crazy childhood, like many, she was petrified of any situation which she couldn’t control.
That year, we arrived at our Cabin on the 22nd of December. We unpacked our clothes and settled in. Throughout the week, I would find myself spending most of my time smoking cigarettes on the balcony overlooking the mountains, the only place I could get cell phone reception. It is absolutely one of the most beautiful views in the world, but that year I was completely oblivious, steeped high in my own concerns. Only later, while reading my mother’s journals, would I learn what an asshole I had been. She was apparently already feeling sick, a precursor to her death, but I, on a strict Lean Cuisine diet to lose weight, was unaware. I do remember her telling me she “couldn’t keep an entire orange down“, but not being troubled. I’m not really sure why now. I just was…absent.
Being our last Christmas together, I remember many things about that trip. I remember my mom complaining that she didn’t get a “Christmas Dinner” because I was on such a strict diet. I remember her non-stop discussion about the state of the world starting on the 27th when former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. I remember her complaining I went down the mountain to Starbucks too often and was gone too long. I remember lots and lots of talking…and lots and lots of silence. But most importantly, I remember our journey on Christmas Eve.
Most of that we had sat around, drinking coffee and watching Christmas movies. Sometime later in the day I decided to take a nap only to wake up long after it had gotten dark. Although the Smoky Mountains are often showed full of snow, Gatlinburg rarely gets snow at Christmas time, but that year, there was a threat of sleet and light snow. I could tell my mother was growing anxious from being cooped up in the cabin all day. After dinner, we decided it might be fun to drive across the mountain to Cherokee to go gambling at the casino.
Much the same as Scout and Jem from To Kill a Mockingbird, our favorite book, thus began our longest journey together.
My mom was apprehensive to drive across the mountain, but I told her it would be safe and we would safe and if it got slick we would just take the interstate back, even though it was a longer drive. While driving out of Gatlinburg into Smoky Mountain National Park, the route across to Cherokee, Sleet warning signs were posted and I was happy my mom had her head down as she dug in her purse.
The entire drive across to Cherokee is about an hour. At one point, the drive reaches one of the highest points in the Eastern United States. While driving at night, especially in cloudy weather, it was difficult to see the mountain tops, so it really felt like any other winding drive. Within an hour, we made our way into the casino, excited about all of the money we were going to win.
Several hours later we exited the casino, all of our money gone. Outside, the temperature had dropped and it was heavily sleeting and spitting snow. Upon getting in our car, my mother told me we would be taking the interstate home that she had no intention of driving across the mountain in this weather. Although I knew the interstate would take us much longer, I consented and began driving, only to become immediately confused by which interstate to take home. After several hours, literally, I turned the truck around and began heading toward the mountain, the only way I knew back to Gatlinburg.
As we entered the park, my mother turned to me and said, “do NOT take me up that mountain. I’m serious!” We began shouting back and forth, arguing about the condition of the road as I found myself sliding a bit as I inched up the mountain. As we rose, snow started to stick to the sides of the road. It was now about 3am and my mom was absolutely terrified. I have to admit, although I don’t mind heights, having visited those roads in the daytime, I knew how high we were, alone on the road, and it was a little scary.
I think for the next forty minutes my mom talked non-stop, telling me what a horrible son I was and how no one she knew would take their mother up that mountain. She said we should turn around and stay in Cherokee over night. By that time, the roads were getting really bad, but we were just about to start our descent on the other side of the mountain. We had not passed any cars on our trip. We were soul travelers on that Smokey Mountain road that night.
Rounding tight corners, my mother was instructing me, cigarette in hand, on every move I should make. As we crossed water running across the road, a deer leaped in front of our truck, my mother panicked, as did I, and we slid off the road, settling safely at the side of the road.
And then absolute silence.
My mom sat for a moment and didn’t say anything. I sat, scared to even speak. “I need to get out of this car for a minute”, my mother said, opening the door and stepping out into the cold night. I turned the car off and got out, watching my mom as she walked in front of the car, watching the deer now only twenty feet in front of us. It stared at us and we started back.
And then suddenly, the clouds parted, and an almost full moon lit the sky and the entire mountain range. In the silence of the woods, I heard my mother gasp and the deer ran off. My mom pointed up and out across the mountains. “Look!” She said, just as excited as a child seeing the delivered presents of Santa Claus on Christmas morning, “That”, her pointing finger drifting across the sky, “Is God.” And then she started crying.
I walked over and hugged my mom, both of us watching the mountains come alive with the full moon magic. We were totally alone together in this silent world. And it was wonderful.
I think we stood out there for about an hour, just talking and sharing some of our favorite family Christmas stories in the dark. The peace overwhelmed the fear and we were now content. At some point, my mom said she was tired and wanted to head home and go to sleep. We got in the car and started it up, just as Silent Night from John Denver and the Muppets began singing through the speakers of the truck.
We drove down the mountain, listening to Christmas music and never once spoke. I watched my mother’s face illuminated with a serene smile, her eyes never once leaving that mountain range. At one point I heard her whisper, “That was God”.
After returning home to our cabin, we immediately went to sleep. Later the next day, before the real world embraced us again, my mom asked me to drive her halfway back up the mountain, where we took the picture above. She said she wanted a picture of herself in God’s world.
I will never forget that night, our longest journey together. And for me, my mom will forever be in the wind, the water and the woods of a peaceful winter night.
May you have a wonderful holiday! Please enjoy my favorite version of Silent Night, the same one we listened to that night in our car on that lone Christmas mountain.
I love you Mama!