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VOL. 40 | NO. 50 | Friday, December 9, 2016

Mountain memories safe despite devastating fires

By Hollie Deese

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The newlywed author on her honeymoon. “This picture was taken possibly the day after we got married.”

-- Submitted

I fell in love with the Great Smoky Mountains in 2003. Taken by the overwhelming natural beauty, the history of the people, the heart of the community, I also fell in love with the person who took me there.

I grew up in a Northwest suburb of Chicago in a working class family with five kids, so my parents spent their money on food, bills and Catholic school. Vacations were pretty much nonexistent – no Disneyland for us – so I had little exposure to the varied geography of America. I never flew on an airplane until after college.

I moved to Tennessee when I was 24 after a particularly harsh winter. My editorial assistantship position at Chicago magazine didn’t progress to a reporter gig after a buyout from the Tribune, so I sent out my resume. Tennessee was one of the few states I had visited and enjoyed in my life and within three weeks I was packed and moving to Nashville, hired by The Tennessean. Goodbye winter. It snowed 7 inches in Nashville that weekend.

My first day at work I met Bryan Deese, then 28 and the art director to my writer in a specialty publications department that lasted only as long as it took for us to start dating, exactly three months. I thought about returning to Chicago after being laid me off, but Bryan convinced me that we maybe had something special. He was right, so I stayed.

Family vacations in Gatlinburg include golf “lessons” for David, 9 and Henry, 6.

I found a job within the company at Rutherford AM, another now-defunct publication in Murfreesboro, where I had no less than six different editors. It was a rough period for me – my commute was long, my job was shaky, my friends and family were not around and then Steve Bartman snatched that ball at Wrigley. I was ready to go home. The only thing keeping me in Tennessee was Bryan.

It was around then that Bryan conspired with my editor (shout out to Mardee Roberts) to show up at work early on a Friday, bags packed and whisk me away to Gatlinburg. He knew he was a one-man show in making me happy and he needed backup. He needed me to fall in love with the state, and the Great Smoky Mountains were his ace in the hole.

It was fall, and we stayed in a cute little cabin in the Arts and Crafts community, hung out in the hot tub enjoying the incredible view of the fall foliage, walked through the park, bought fudge and I fell more in love, both with him and Tennessee.

So his plan totally worked. My heart was in the mountains, and from that moment on, whenever we would return and the Smokies came into view, my heart starts beating a bit faster, the same feeling I get whenever I see my beloved Chicago skyline.

After Bryan proposed a few years later, we began to plan a Nashville wedding. Around the time of our engagement, my mother was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. She lived in Illinois, I lived in Nashville, and she helped me plan the wedding by phone while I stayed in denial about how sick she really was, fueled by her long-distance assurances.

She came to Nashville in April 2006 to help me find a dress for my June wedding, and I could not remain in denial any more. It was a punch in the gut for me to see the reality of her cancer while I was selfishly planning a wedding.

After a few stops at some consignment places, I bought the first dress I tried on at David’s Bridal because she was too sick to even sit up, and my head is cut off of all the pictures she took of me that day because she was too weak to lift a camera.

I moved in with my mom in May to help care for her while she did dialysis, radiation and chemotherapy until it became clear there was nothing left to do. My mom died on June 6, 2006, just one week before my wedding. The last thing my mom and I ever did together outside of a hospital was buy that wedding dress, and she never got to see me walk down the aisle.

Bryan and I postponed the wedding and changed everything. We decided to get married in the mountains in the fall, the most special place at the most special time to us.

We chose Mountain Valley Wedding Chapel in Wears Valley and the day was about as beautiful as it could have been. We only had about 10 people there, our immediate families. No reception, no party, no friends.

My mom was gone and there was nothing in Nashville or Chicago that could have provided me the comfort and specialness the mountains did on that day.

This place that had been a haven for Bryan and me as we grew our relationship, even more so that day, linking my mom in the mix though she never got to see the Smokies herself.

We’ve returned countless times over the years, so many times I can only distinguish the photos by how old or young we look, what we were wearing, if I was pregnant. We spent our babymoon in Gatlinburg – yes, he was conceived on our mountain honeymoon – and then returned with our newborn for Christmas in 2007. It was so special we now stay in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge every Christmas.

Our 10-year anniversary was in October, and we had always talked about doing something big, a party like we didn’t have for our wedding or going to some all-inclusive resort. Instead, we booked a small cabin in the Arts and Crafts community, just like our first time there.

We went back just a month later with our kids because we couldn’t stay away.We started looking at land to purchase and planning our future, which we know is in the mountains. It is our special place.

This Christmas we had a large cabin booked for my family, my father and siblings and spouses and children.

The cabin is gone, but the mountains are there, the people are there and we will be there.

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