My daughter made this heretical statement this week, casting a cold shadow over my soul.
“That’s impossible!” I managed to sputter. “Picnics… are God’s gift to man!”
I was hyperbolic, as usual. She rolled her eyes, as usual.
When I asked what her beef with picnics was, she said, “They’re so much work.” I had to admit that was true.
Regardless, I have a soft spot in my heart for picnics. The very word sends me to a warm, quiet place and brings a gentle smile to my lips. When I hear the word picnic, I invariably think of the gaily painted wall alight with orange flowers and butterflies we’d pass on our way to Briones Regional Park when we were little, in the early 70s. It always excited me. It meant we were almost there, almost to the “wooden slide park.”
My mother collected wicker baskets. Ten or fifteen handsome, well-made, honey colored baskets rested atop our kitchen’s cabinets. Some had hinged tops, some were huge, some diminutive. There was a basket for every occasion. Her favorite was a rounded, French-style, medium-sized basket. She’d fill a couple of these.
My dad would pack the cooler with marinated steaks for the grill, bottles of wine, fruit, and cheeses. He’d pack the charcoal and lighter fluid. Domino, our Dalmatian, would leap into the yellow station wagon nicknamed The Sub. The four of us kids would pile in, and off we’d go.
These picnics occurred when I was a child, when driving for 45 minutes felt interminable and the distance vast. We’d arrive in the late afternoon or early evening. It occurs to me now that at least some of these nights were week nights in the summer. We’d topple out of the car and scatter, sliding down the unusual, wide, shellacked wooden slide into a deep sand pit filled with spiny oak leaves, acorns, and acorn tops that served as tiny cups we’d fill at the porcelain water fountain on the edge of the picnic site.
My mother would find a table she liked and pull from her baskets printed cotton table cloths, cloth napkins, wine glasses, and silverware. Plates, cutting boards, and implements. My dad would start the coals in the grill beside the table. The playground area of the park was bordered by rows of round, wooden, pier-shaped columns with flat tops of varying heights. We’d hop from one to another.
When we got tired of that, we’d slip and slide down the densely wooded hill near the creek, where we’d encounter pond skaters (some people call them water striders) with their delicately jointed arms and legs that went in and out like jumping jacks and iridescent blue dragonflies floating above the water on gauzy wings. We’d look for frogs and rarely find them.
My dad would do the grilling. My mom would prep things for the grill. I don’t know how she did it, but we always had the most elegant offerings at these picnics. Crusty fresh bread (in the early 70s when real bread was exotic), potato salads with hard-boiled egg and dill, pates and terrines, fresh sliced tomatoes and salads strewn with nasturtium petals.
My dad always loved picnics. These days, he’s very frail and afflicted with advanced dementia, but still, invariably, if you ask him what he wants to do, he’ll pipe, “Picnic! Oysters!,” and his face will erupt in a rare and beloved smile.
Yes, that was his favorite picnic of all. Many weekends, we’d drive out to “The Cheese Factory” (now known as the Marin French Cheese Company) with the same get-up, though this time, my parents would buy the cheese on site. We’d picnic on the grounds, usually on the side opposite the pond, probably because it was the prettier side, and that would have mattered to my mother, who had a gift for finding aesthetic beauty. She would have sought the table beneath the prettiest tree. In fact, she’d refuse to sit at an ugly table. I inherited this from her.
We’d play, climb trees, poke around in the creek, and — same drill — they’d lay the table and prepare the food. And drink plenty of wine. Time stretched out during these picnics. I’d lie under a tree using the dog’s midriff as my pillow. We’d sniff the stinky cheeses, wrinkle up our noses, cry “Ewwww!,” and run away. My dad would say, “The stinkier the better.”
After lunch, we’d drive to Johnson’s Oyster Farm in Drakes Estero, a semi-isolated, rural community near Point Reyes in northern California. We’d drive for an awfully long time, pinching, hitting, and bickering with one another in the back seat, where Domino would fart in our laps. We’d scream and push her off onto our neighbor which resulted in a pummeling match. Our parents turned up the radio.
Finally, we’d get to Johnson’s. We’d know because we’d turn left off the curvy paved road and slow way down. The tires would sink into a bed of broken oyster shells that crunched sickeningly beneath the tires of the car. We’d roll that way, at about five miles per hour, for quite a while along the edge of a slough, finally parking at the end where a tiny building with the elegance of a tractor-trailer was perched on the water.
A giant mountain of shining, stinking, marvelously magnetic oyster shells heaped in a pyramid the size of a two-story building beckoned us irresistibly. We’d begin climbing it, slipping and sliding and trying not to get cut, shrieking at the stench which was insufferable and exciting.
My parents would buy oysters on the half shell and slurp them down at the counter and then buy jars to take home. We took my dad back recently for oysters in Point Reyes. We bought 100 oysters and an oyster knife and carted everything to Heart’s Desire Beach, where we set my dad up on a camp chair and fed him raw oysters that my daughter opened like an expert, sliding them down his gullet, gaping and grateful as a baby bird.
Lake Temescal in Oakland is another favorite place we frequented both when I was a young child and now that I have my own family. Same deal, but these days it’s me being hyper-perfectionistic, bringing real linens, insisting everything including the bar-be-que sauce be homemade, even making a cake or a pie when possible and, yes, my daughter is right — lugging it all from the car to the picnic table.
Yes, those treks are interminable. They are a pain in the neck. But, that’s why when you finally get everything there, you stay for a while. You dig in, loll on the blanket you brought, gaze at the sky through the flickering leaves, lie half-in and half-out of the sun, listen to the ducks bleating, admire the curve of your dog’s dignified snout.
We don’t picnic near enough now, and when my father is gone, I already know I will regret not taking him on enough picnics. It’s such a simple request, such a sweet and homey request. It seems to me we should be picnicking daily.
The trick — one I have yet to master — is to plan ahead a little bit more. Maybe have a basket that’s already outfitted. I saw one in the Discovery Shop, the Cancer Society’s thrift store, recently, with plastic, picnic-ready plates, glasses, utensils, and other bric-a-brac, but it was so heavy I couldn’t lift it if my life depended on it. So that was rejected.
Maybe relinquish the unreasonable belief that a “real” picnic is far more than sandwiches, that it has to have the romance and elegance of a bygone era. Maybe it’s okay to just pack up quick and dirty into your one basket the basics: a wood board, a baguette, an apple or two. Cheese. Some cookies. Fruit, and some wine. Pick the right time of day — late afternoon when the light will be falling pretty and no matter where you are, nature will be putting on a show for you, preening and turning and showing off her jewels.
Yes, the blanket is a necessity. Lie on it. Let the dog prop herself against you. Listen to your kids talk. Refrain from adding your voice. Just listen. Breathe. Close your eyes. Picnic.