Enjoying new, old-fashioned fun with Grandma and Grandpa

SOLD. Grandma and Grandpa were really leaving the farm. I stood outside with my six-year-old sister, Ava, and my mom, staring at the sign. Though she tried to hide it, I could tell my mom was kind of bummed out. She was born and raised there and had many memories on the farm. We all did. My favorite memory would always be light night.

“Light night” is an annual family tradition. For as long as I can remember, we’ve spent the first weekend in December helping my grandparents decorate the farm for the holidays. After all the lights were up, we’d count down from 10 together before switching on every light at the same time. This year was different. The farm sold in late November and we had spent Thanksgiving helping Grandma and Grandpa move into a retirement community. We were all so busy unpacking boxes, that I didn’t think we’d do anything special to make up for missing light night.

Fortunately, Dad noticed that Grandma and Grandpa were worried about the transition, and he wanted to cheer up Mom.

“Even if it’s last minute, we need to have some new, old-fashioned family fun,” he insisted. I was trying to figure out how something could be new and old-fashioned at the same time, but Dad had that taken care of—he just needed help from us kids to plan “Operation Gatlinburg.” Dad had discovered a town that would supply the lights and the action; we’d just have to bring the camera. So, instead of going to the farm the weekend after Thanksgiving, all of us—including Grandma and Grandpa—headed to East Tennessee: headquarters for Operation Gatlinburg.

Smoky Mountain snow

“It doesn’t look smoky,” said my 8-year-old brother, Ryan, when we drove into Gatlinburg. I was 10 years old so I knew the Smoky Mountains weren’t actually smoky—this time of year, they were actually topped with white snowy peaks.

Perfect for the first mission of Operation Gatlinburg: play! We headed to Ober Gatlinburg—where we saw lots of skiers in bright colors. Ava, Ryan, and I were headed for snow tubing, though. None of us had ever snow tubed, and I was secretly nervous. But since I was the oldest, I knew it was my responsibility to be the bravest. I flew down the hill on that first run—Ryan and Ava could tell from my screams of joy that they had nothing to be afraid of.

We had tried sledding the few times there was snow at the farm, but it was mostly flat and it was always a pain to walk back up the one hill while pulling old wooden sleds. At Ober, we got to sled down real slopes on giant tubes and ride a ski lift back up. We were able to get in a few runs runs—even Mom joined in when she got tired of taking our pictures and wanted to join in on the fun—before it was time to head off to our next Operation Gatlinburg mission. But, we were losing a couple agents—Grandma and Grandpa were headed to Sweet Fanny Adams Theater & Music Hall for a Vaudeville-type comedy musical. That was right up their alley.

We thought they were going to the car with us, but Mom and Dad had us say goodbye before the parking lot.

“But, how are you going to get there?” Ava asked. Grandpa pointed up. “The tram, of course!” he said. “There are hundreds of people up there; they’re catching a ride to downtown and seeing a great view of the Smoky Mountains.”

“I still don’t get why they call it that,” Ryan said. “Shouldn’t it be the snowy mountains?” We giggled.

Winter lights galore

My first day in Gatlinburg was my first time riding a ski lift, riding on snow tubes and later that night, riding in a trolley. Dad promised that Gatlinburg offered more lights than what we put up for light night in the past 10 years combined, and he wasn’t kidding. We must have seen a million bulbs as we toured Gatlinburg on the Trolley Ride of Lights.

“Can you believe the Trolley Ride of Lights runs through the end of January?” Mom asked.

“If I had to put up that many lights, I’d want them to be enjoyed for 120 days too,” Dad replied as he snapped photos.

Ava’s favorite was a wildlife display. Ryan liked Ripley’s Aquarium’s beautiful lighting displays, and shortly after we passed it our trolley driver pointed out a theater.

“That’s where Grandma and Grandpa are having date night,” Mom said.

“A date?!” Ava couldn’t believe it. We all laughed again as Mom explained that yes, date night was still alive and well for her mom and dad.

The next morning, Mom was the one with the giggles. We were about to drop her and Grandma off at the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Loop so they could do some Christmas shopping. The eight mile-long Arts & Craft loop is would give Grandma a lot of shopping to take her mind off of selling the farm. Operation Gatlinburg was reminding her that she didn’t need the farm to feel like a kid again.

While Mom and Grandma were (hopefully) shopping for the items on my Christmas list, the rest of us were just getting started at the Hollywood Star Cars Museum.

“Look, it’s the Batmobile!” Ryan shouted as I inspected the Flintstones’ car. We found Ava posing for a photo with Herbie the Love Bug. Walking among these very famous cars felt like hanging out on a movie set, and it was neat to hear Dad and Grandpa talk about the collection’s oldest cars that were mostly from grown-up movies.

Festive floats

We ended our Gatlinburg trip all together, at the Fantasy of Lights Christmas Parade. We were right on the street and so close to the parade that I saw one of the toy soldiers on the train float wink at me when I waved. Santa’s workshop also rolled by and there was even a float with a plane surrounded by snowmen.

We all gave Grandma a hard time when one of the marching bands played “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” though I think she was singing along the loudest. It wasn’t until I heard the clip-clop of the horse-drawn carriages that I remembered the farm—where we had spent this weekend ever since I was a baby. I looked around at my family to see if anyone else was thinking the same thing. Ryan was teasing Ava that the gingerbread man balloon float was edible. Dad was teaching Grandma and Grandpa how to take photos with their phones. When I glanced at Mom, she looked at me and squeezed my shoulder.

“It’s okay Nick,” she whispered. “The farm was a very special place, but it’s not the only special place.”

It was hard to believe that we would never spend the holidays on the farm again. Still, spending time with my family in East Tennessee made me realize that who you’re with is often more important than where you are.

Mom always says, “You can’t pick your family” when I complain about my siblings. But truthfully, I think I lucked out in that department. And since you can pick where you are, I’m so glad Dad picked Gatlinburg. Grandma and Grandpa were happy too.

They joked, “If we had known how much fun this place was, we’d have sold the farm years ago.”

Discover more magic of Gatlinburg!

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