Preparedness is one of those things that usually refers to the military being ready for war. At our house my mother had to be prepared for whatever whim my father might come up with. I took least enjoyment for his whim to have a picnic. Not only was it work to throw together a picnic but it was social which did not appeal to me at all and there was no opt out of participation. It was all hands on deck.
For most people picnics were something that were planned in advance and one of the goals would be fun. We had those picnics, but more often than not we experienced the sudden, “Hey let’s call so-and-so and have them over tonight for a cookout.” Tonight? It was 3 in the afternoon now. Consider that it wasn’t really a question, “Like, honey what do you think about having some people over for a cookout? Do we have all the things we need to do that?” or better yet, “Do you feel like throwing together a picnic in the next two hours?” Nope, from my father there were never inquiries and while I was growing up there was never any opposition. He was the head of the household. It did not matter that she has laundry and cleaning to do, that there were other things on her agenda. Her agenda was not important … to him.
For a long time I admired my mother’s foresight in always having every imaginable item needed on hand. It seemed to border on psychic but she had simply learned from experience. It was her job to make sure everyone had what they needed when they needed it no matter how ridiculous. This was made challenging by the fact that she didn’t drive and there was no public transportation where we lived, so she wouldn’t have been able to pop out to the store and pick up a few things on short notice.
Because of her psychic skills, our basement was practically a mini-mart. There was always a supply of toilet paper, beer and pop. One wall of shelves was always packed with canned goods, jars of homemade pickles and peppers, condiments and more. I often found these shelves disturbing if only because I had a need for them to be organized in the order the items would have been found at the store. And they weren’t organized in any manner. When would my mother have had the time? Often while waiting for the dryer to finish a load, I would use that time to group soups or vegetables together and even alphabetize them on the shelves I could reach. All cans facing front. This must have been where I got those skills that came in so handy at Borders years later where I had five sections to maintain.
Also in the basement was a giant freezer, the chest kind that you lifted the lid like the lid of a coffin to see what was inside. It was suitable for hiding a body as we now know from episodes of any Law and Order franchise. It used to scare me a bit as a child because I had to stand on a step stool to reach inside, sometimes balancing on the edge and tipping in. I’d never actually seen the bottom….now thinking back, I wonder about that missing uncle.
In that freezer, in no particular order, my mother always had picnic needs tucked in around roasts, fish, ice cream and more, having made purchases whenever the items were on sale and she had a coupon. Both of those things were required for most purchases in our house. I remember the first time I went to the grocery store for something I didn’t have a coupon for, I approached the check out with great hesitation because I was certain alarms would go off, and that someone would report me to her. So there were always hot dogs and buns, sometimes burgers and buns. She would buy the ground beef ahead and smash it into perfect burger circles using this old hinged wooden press. If you could pry apart the frozen saran wrapped individuals, you were all set. And there was always, as was noted in the eulogy at my mother’s funeral, a cake, not a store bought cake, we never had those. But a square 8 x 8″ or 9 x 13″ pan with cake, usually banana, iced with her chocolate fudge icing.
If she had more than two or three hours to plan and apples on hand, an apple cake could be served hot from the oven to guests, but time to plan was a rarity.
So for two hours there would be a scramble to call and invite the people my father was interested in sitting around the fire with, gathering the food and separating it so that it might thaw in time and creating side dishes, usually bake beans. I was usually in charge of stirring those so that they did not stick to the bottom of the pan. It wasn’t enough to just open a can, it had to be dressed up in order to be acceptable to serve. Onions, mustard, brown sugar and, of course, bacon, needed to be hurriedly plopped in, no measuring needed, and stirred through. Once it started bubbling and could reduce to simmer to cook down, I would be transferred to utensil duty.
The guests would generally be either a couple of my father’s friends from work and their wives or relatives, sometimes with kids, but not often. I don’t think my father tolerated us well, let alone inviting over other people’s kids and the noise that might bring. If there were burgers, the charcoal grill would be dragged over to the fireplace in the backyard, filled with charcoal, doused in lighter fluid and set aflame (fondly known as the boy scout method of starting a fire). Hot dogs could be more easily cooked on a small rack over the heat rising from the fireplace chimney. That had to be monitored as every so often one would roll off onto the ground. That was to the dog’s benefit. Sometimes it wasn’t an accident.
A table cloth would be fastened to the picnic table with elastics that had gripper clips on the ends, topped paper plates, napkins, plastic utensils (easy cleanup was important) and serving spoons and forks. Bottles of ketchup, mustard, bowls of chopped onions, sliced tomatoes and more. My mother, ever clever and economical, used old lampshades, wire frames covered with nylon netting as covers for food so that no flies or gnats could get near the food.
If you didn’t hear it, there was generally a sigh of relief as it all came together and cars were pulling into the long driveway. It always all came together, one way or another. I always hated eating outside. I realize now that I really only disliked all the tension leading up to the meal. What I did like and remember fondly was the way the evening always ended. After the fireflies quieted and it was very dark, chairs were pulled up around the fire place, not for the warmth of the flames, but for the warmth of the togetherness. The talking would stop and someone would start to sing. If my dad was drunk, he would sing Tu Ra Lu Ra Lu Ra…the Irish lullaby…but I don’t honestly think he knew all the words. Without fail, there was always a group rendition of “you are my sunshine, my only sunshine”. Everyone of all ages new the words to that one. No preparation required.