Saturday, July 4, 2009

Independence Day Picnics


The hiss and boom of fireworks are tapering off. Another Independence Day in the United States. Today, I think about all the reasons why I feel lucky to belong to this messy community of free thinkers and loudmouthed discontents. News in recent weeks is enough to remind us: we do have basic freedoms of thought, speech, and action that people (especially women) in other parts of the world can only hold in their hearts as hope. I don't have the strongest record as a patriot, but there are not many other places I'd rather be at the moment, barring the need for serious health care (knock wood). Well, on vacation, yes, but that's different. So this day of anthems and outdoor grilling is coming to a close, and what do I remember in this moment? Really, because of the fact that this afternoon our family did nothing to mark the holiday (traditional plans fell through), I am remembering the picnic we would have had—the one that we've had whenever possible, in the years since I came back East to be closer to my parents and start a new chapter of life in New York City. Our sort-of-annual picnic in Connecticut, when we coordinate it well, involves my immediate family (parents, husband, son), plus two groups of family friends from way back. When we started the picnics, none of us (other than my own parents, of course) had children. Then, in 2003, babies arrived on the scene. I am remembering a loose collage of memories, then, because since becoming a mother that's how everything seems: a loose (or maybe it's tight?) fabric of activity and intentions, things done accidentally or not at all, and a triumph when normal events like July 4th picnics manage to come off without a hitch, without anyone passing out from exhaustion, or dishes of cobbler getting knocked off the wooden picnic table. Yes, let's start there and dispense with it. It was, I think, in 2005, when my son was two—not a "terrible two" at all, but he wore me out nonetheless. I'd stayed up late the night before to make a cobbler, peach I think, and had cut pastry star shapes out for the topping, in keeping with the flag theme that would wave across our paper goods. I remember showing my son the top of the cobbler, and he was in awe of the stars. The cobbler was in a white dish and sat upon the bench of the picnic table; that was the mistake, too low. I am not sure how it happened, but one minute the cobbler was fine, and the next, our dessert lay among shards of broken Corning Ware with blades of grass run through it. I couldn't help being upset. It had taken most of my inner resources to get the cobbler done in the first place, but still, accidents happen. And I couldn't chastise my son when I saw a new kind of hurt in his eyes: the weight of responsibility that settled on him as he understood that "Mommy's beautiful cake [was] gone," and that he was the cause of it. The blame he took upon himself was punishment enough, and I wish I could undo the incident if only to keep him from that feeling (perhaps his first ever) of guilt. But there've been other desserts: the frosted cookie cut-out stars, the vanilla cake with cream, strawberries, and blueberries to form the flag, a peach-poppyseed cake, some shortcakes . . . I am the go-to person for the desserts, but here's what I remember of the rest: my father always the grill master, with some help from the other guys; the parboiled, fresh buttered corn, sweet and slightly charred over the coals; burgers, hot dogs, chicken breasts; chips and dip, fresh veggies brought by one family; salad provided by another. I have to pause on the salad. The woman who usually does the salad brought one year a simple but delightful combination: fresh baby spinach leaves, roasted pecans, blueberries, and (I think) blue cheese. I don't know why the blueberries took me by surprise, but they did. They provided just the right tangy sweetness to offset the oil-rich pecans, the bitter greens, and the pungent cheese. I also remember the wooden salad servers she used, which were not the typical set of long-handled fork and spoon, but rather a pair of little paddles shaped like bear claws, which my husband later gave me for my birthday. My husband would always bring wine—often a chilled rosé, of the sort I never drank until I met him. I thought rosé was for wimps, until I tasted some really fine French rosés (there, it's true, they are accorded more distinction). Out in a park near the water's edge, we'd talk and eat and drink in the sun, put the kids to sleep in Pack-n-Plays when they were little, but later we'd run them around the lawn, playing Frisbee or tossing balls. The other French twist to the Fourth (besides the wine, because it's only fitting; we do owe a debt of gratitude to them for our independence, after all): pétanque. Like Italian bocce for those who don't know, but the balls are different, probably the rules vary as well. Like a group of retired Frenchmen in the town square, we'd set about tossing the "cochon" (the target marker), do our best in teams to perfect our form. Thuds and clacks, shouts of friendly competition. The sun would slant down in the sky, and we'd pack things up, content. Drunk on sunshine and good humor. I am nostalgic for the experience this year, bereft as I am even of the colorful fireworks display since we moved to the East Side, while the fireworks were moved west, over the Hudson this year. Ah, well, there'll be July 4, 2010. And in the meantime, there are memories and enough thankfulness for independence to carry through to next year.

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