reinstated family picnic, take 2

Growing up, our family did a fall picnic every year. Then when Mama died, our annual picnic, like so many other things, stopped. Last year, we decided to reinstate it. Last year’s attempt was a little bit random…. whenever we try to do something that was from Before, it’s a strange displaced feeling. It always takes a while for it to feel normal, fun, like we’re not just going through the motions. We decided not to go back to our regular family picnic spot & so we ended up without a plan last year, driving aimlessly until finally pulling off & having a picnic on the side of road.

So this year, we made a plan. This is the second year of the Reinstated Family Fall Picnic… we have a plan & we’re going to go somewhere new & it’s going to be fun, damn it. So Saturday morning begins with an argument about transportation. You see, our family has a bad history with cars. Like, our cars are old & paid for, but sometimes don’t work. Jennifer & I want us all to ride together because that’s what we did as children & that’s how it should be. Bobby says we shouldn’t ride together because our two larger vehicles are both showing signs of transmission problems. Daddy & Tom are indifferent. We move our bag chairs & grill & picnic blanket & the kids car seats from car to car with each change in plan, Bobby’s pissy (because that’s just kinda what he does these days, but that’s another post) & Jennifer insistent & I’m just tired & we haven’t even pulled out of the driveway.

We finally all load into the Jen & Tom’s Explorer, which we decide has the less serious transmission quirks. And off we go. There are 8 of us, plus Oscar. There are 7 seat belts. This was not the most comfortable (or legal ride). There’s nowhere for Oscar to sit, so he sits on my lap & he hasn’t been groomed recently & he smells like dog-butt. But we trying to be happy despite the cloud of pissiness hanging over Bobby & the potential transmission catastrophe hanging all of us & the smell & fact that we’re doing this without Mama because she’s dead…. we’re staying upbeat because it’s going to be fun, damn it.

So we stop at the grocery store & it’s a bit disheveled & Rose almost runs out of the store while we’re at the cash register & a grocery store employee catches her & returns her to us with a most judgmental & disapproving look because, um people? Get your 2-year-old under control.

As we drive to this new, planned location, we realize that we’re going to be actually driving past the location of our family picnics growing up. It’s strange & unsettling to drive by & not turn in. But we’re on a mission to find a new place & make a new tradition & we’re having fun, damn it.

We pull off the road onto a steeply sloped gravel road & Jennifer, Daddy & I are laughing & Tom & Bobby aren’t. Bobby hasn’t been laughing the whole time, & he’s now infected Tom. We drive up & down & up again & down again on this very hilly gravel road & as we begin to climb yet another hill, the car begins roaring & not shifting gears & smoke starts rising from the hood & it’s bad. Just bad. Rose looked at me with wide eyes & saying with her exaggerated, overly dramatic flair “OH NO!” And I start giggling. Tom says in an extremely irritated voice, “Jennifer, this really isn’t funny.” And Jennifer rats me out, but still I can’t stop giggling. We stop the car & turn it off & everyone gets out. The guys raise the hood & stare, while Jennifer makes suggestions & I take pictures, which pisses Bobby off. More, since he started the day in a state of pissed-off-ness.

After much discussion, the guys decide that the transmission is just tired & needs a rest. We put the Explorer in neutral & Jennifer steers while Tom & Bobby push & Daddy tromps into the woods to pee & I take pictures (of the pushing, not the peeing). Jennifer steers the car backwards into a small drive & parks & then we proceed to set up a picnic. I mean, you’re potentially stranded on a deserted gravel road with no cell service (did I mention that no one had a cell signal?) & a tired transmission & a husband/brother-in-law who’s now transitioned from pissy to full-fledged irate, & what do you do? Eat. Eating always helps (which probably explains my chubbiness).

As we eat, Daddy says that Mama’s laughing at us. Jennifer says that Mama’s wondering what the heck we’re doing here. I was wondering that myself. Bobby yells about how much work he has to do & now we’re going to get home too late & he’s so stressed, & we all sit there & feel a little bit chastised. Except me… I’m just a smart-ass & ask him exactly what he would like us to do about it. By this time, I’m ready to kill him & dump his body in the woods… I have a lot of woods to choose from.

And then the Dr Pepper spews all over me when I open it because apparently someone shook it. And Rose fell & sat on the hamburger buns with great force. And Maggie was setting a new world record for whining because all of her teeth are falling out of her 6-year-old head & no bite is ever small enough… I suggested that Jennifer just chew it up & spit it directly into her mouth. And then it started raining.

When the rain began, we threw up the white flag, packed it up, & got back in the car. We mediated &/or prayed as we drove (limped) back out of the mountains… the car made it. Barely, but it made it. On the way home, Maggie, in keeping with the uplifting nature of the day, began listing all the things that had gone wrong. She was up to 12 when Jennifer suggested that we play a made-up game… we had to come up with a happy word for every letter of the alphabet & everyone had to play. And just to keep it fun, we also did a round of grumpy words for every letter of the alphabet… Maggie & I killed that round.

It’s been decided that next year, we’re not trying to make a new place happen. We’re not going to attempt to rework our family tradition. We’re going to our old picnic spot & we’re going to just make new memories there. And we’re going to rent a van so that everyone can (legally) ride together. I think Mama agrees with this plan.



A few weeks ago, I received an email from one of the pastors of our church saying that she’s putting together an advent devotional book & could I write a devotion.

Now if you know me, you know that me? writing a devotion? is really effing weird. For example, this morning, I told my sister, brother-in-law & friend. Jennifer & Alex’s heads snapped around and they stared at me like I had suddenly sprouted another head. BIL Tom laughed really, really loudly. To say that I’m not religious would be an understatement. I have issues with God stuff. And then there’s the whole mother dying thing… that has really put a kink in Christmas too.

But Ellen, the email-writing pastor, knows this. So she asked me to write this knowing that what I would write wouldn’t be the typical scripture-spouting stuff.

I really struggled to write this little assignment. It was due last Friday & I missed the deadline. Ellen texted me an extended deadline & I missed that one too. The topic is Christmas traditions, memories, or a favorite story to share…. everything I wrote ended up being either happy & fake or honest & depressing.

So this morning at 2am, I finally finished something & sent it without rereading. And Ellen said it’ll work. It’s not perfect or particularly well-written. But this little pseudo-devotion is kind of a big deal… it’s a public statement that things are getting better. That this Christmas is better. That we’ve moved beyond the debilitating grief of Mama dying.

My contribution to the Christmas Advent devotional:

Growing up, traditions were an integral part of our family’s fabric. My mother in particular loved traditions, no matter how seemingly insignificant. She was even known to create new traditions on the fly in order to solicit family participation… the kids complaining about attending yet another family event? Call it a “tradition” & they have to come. The Christmas season was particularly steeped in tradition. Every year, we would go see the Nutcracker, host a neighborhood gathering, & a few days before Christmas, travel deep into the Virginia mountains to visit my grandparents with merrily wrapped gifts stacked to the ceiling of our Chrysler minivan, shouting Christmas carols all the way & praying fervently for snow.

Then in September of 2007, my mother died. Everything changed. We, & the traditions, fell apart. We didn’t do any of the things we had always done. It was just too familiar, too normal. In an effort to escape, we – my sisters, our husbands & my father – rented a little mountain cabin. And on Christmas Day, we disappeared. We drove to a small, secluded house in the Georgia mountains & retreated into a cocoon where there was no Christmas, no reminders, no familiarity… there was only the people who understood.

As the years have passed, Christmas has once again become joyful for our family. Seeing it through the eyes of our daughter Rose has brought the childlike wonder back to the holiday season. I find myself creating traditions just like my mother did… taking a drive in our pajamas to see the Christmas lights, enjoying the beauty of Boulevard’s Christmas celebration, &, yes, the Christmas Cabin. The mountain cabin that was initially a place we turned to in desperation has now become one of our family’s favorite traditions. It’s a place for us to retreat, not to grieve as we did that first year, but to grow stronger together. As this Christmas draws closer, we’re excitedly counting down the days… to the celebration of the birth of Christ, to the joy of Christmas with little ones, & to our time together as a family.

this man james

A few minutes ago, there was a knock on the door. Opening it, I felt an immediate flash of annoyance. It was James. Again. James is this man who asked for money, & then Bobby asked him to help us with yard work in exchange for said money, & then he started coming by regularly & when Bobby’s here, he asks for work, but when I’m here alone, he just asks for money. And he always rings the doorbell when Rose is napping, which isn’t awesome.

So I open the door, bracing myself to say no. “How you doin’, James?” “Not too good,” he replies. And he tells me that he has four little kids in his house & they don’t have power & they’re cold & he needs $60 to get the power turned back on, & he has $27, so he just needs $33 more. And he pulls these crumpled bills out of his pocket, & it’s all 5’s & 1’s that I assume totaled $27. And I realized that during all the times he’s come to our house… which has been for at least 2 years now… I never knew he had kids. How did I not know this? It was the crumpled bills that did it. That & the fact that I didn’t know he had 4 kids.

So I told him to hold on a second while I checked my wallet.

In the kitchen, I pulled out our envelopes. They’re all neatly labeled in a super-cute gray & yellow fabric – dry cleaning, pet care, household, entertainment, groceries. I emptied the entertainment envelope & walked back to the door. He was sitting in the rocking chair on our front porch, not rocking, holding his head in both hands. He had tears in his eyes when I gave him the money.

Bobby will probably tell me that I got got. That I’m gullible & a sucker & too easy. And maybe I am. Maybe I gave him the money just to ease my own conscience, the guilt of having an entertainment envelope when James & his kids don’t have power. Maybe I should have given everything in the dry cleaning & pet care & household envelopes too. Maybe I shouldn’t have believed him. I dunno. It just felt like the right thing to do.

So there’s that.