I used to tease my mom and stepfather Jerry because nearly every time they took a vacation, they went to Gatlinburg.
“There’s a whole world out there!” I’d lament. And they’d shrug, then head down the highway to Gatlinburg, “The Gateway to the Smokies.”
When Jerry died, my mother quit going. It seemed like the memories might be too painful. Then she went with her brother-in-law and step-daughters and discovered that it was tolerable, but certainly not the same. How could it be? Her memories of the place were with him.
So we were reluctant to travel there over the holidays this year (a miserable time when you’re missing someone anyway), but it seemed like a good middle meeting place for us to reconnect with my son coming from Georgia. We asked her if she wanted to go and she said ‘yes.’ I hoped our trip would be different enough from her past trips that she wasn’t overwhelmed with missing Jerry. But at the same time, I wanted her to be able to enjoy the things she’d done with him there if she wanted to. If nothing else, I wanted to see what kept bringing them back.
One tradition they always had when they went was going out for pancakes in the morning — an easy and apparently very popular outing in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. As we drove down the main drag, we saw pancake place after pancake place.
“Is that it? we’d ask.
Every few hundred feet I’d point to the next one. “No, no, no, no, no.”
We passed a few more pancake houses in Gatlinburg and then finally, my mother told us to park. We were there — at Pancake Pantry, “Tennessee’s first pancake restaurant.”
A line was snaking out the door and around the corner. Apparently that’s the norm. In fact, the Pancake Pantry keeps a stand of umbrellas outside for patrons waiting in the rain. So we took our spot in the cold mountain drizzle and waited. Leave it to Jerry to find the one pancake house with a line, I thought. I mean, a pancake is a pancake, right?
First of all, the interior was cozy and warm, homey and cabin-y. Perfect for a place in the Smoky Mountains. A gigantic Christmas tree decorated with Raggedy Ann dolls and other toys was displayed in front of the two-story windows. A table with a huge bowl of freshly whipped cream sat right outside the kitchen. As the servers passed, they added heaping dollops onto plates of every kind of pancake you can imagine. Jerry always ordered crepes on their first mornings there. The next day he got the Parisienne pancakes: three pancakes brimming with strawberry compote and whipped cream, served cool. I was tempted to follow in his fooststeps, but there were so many enticing items on the menu, I almost couldn’t decide: Caribbean pancakes, Austrian Apple-Walnut pancakes, Sweet Potato pancakes, Chocolate Sin, Apricot-Lemon, Orange-Walnut…the list went on and on.
We sat and ate every scrumptious bite as more diners came in out of the rain and others took their spots in line. I conceded that Jerry knew what he was doing. I didn’t have to try any other places to know that Jerry had found the best pancakes that Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg had to offer. I just wish he would have been there with us. We all did. But I let it be enough that his memory and spirit lived on and brought us there for pancakes. Even though I never traveled to Gatlinburg with Jerry, now we have Pancake Pantry memories, too.