Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Picnic In The Park

Sunlight filters through the humid air that defines summer in Pittsburgh, and shimmers in waves before us as my husband Al and I walk the quarter-mile from our house to Squaw Valley Park.   We are on our way to the O'Hara Township picnic for employees and for residents who donate services.  Al is on the Zoning Board, so we get an invitation each year.

            As we come to the end of sidewalk on Fox Chapel Road, we step onto the shaded path that skirts the back approach to the park, and follow it alongside Squaw Valley Creek.  When the softball field on the left and the fountained pond far to the right come into view, we cut across the grass to reach Shelter Number One.  That's where the picnic is always held.

“They must have hired a less expensive caterer this year,”Al says.

“Why?” I ask.

“The steam table and big grill the usual caterer brings with him aren't here.  The grill that is here is no bigger than the one we have in our back yard.” 

Looking over the small group of people within the shelter, I see that the turn-out is meager compared to other years, and I mention this to Al.  “Maybe people are still away on vacation,” he says.  

Just as I am about to comment to him that I don't see too many familiar faces, a woman waves and says, “Hi, Mary.  It is Mary, isn't it?  We met at Hemphill's Christmas Party.” 

“Oh yes!” I say,  “How are you?”  I don't remember her name. 

Al sees a former patient of his, and they talk together for several minutes.  Al doesn't introduce me, so I  just stand there, and then the man gives me a lukewarm smile and moves on.  

We head for the food table and help ourselves to paper plate, napkin, and plastic tableware.  Someone says, “Hello, Doc.”  Al says hello back, and again I stand around while they talk about ailments and other times.

A man with a box of cookies in hand comes over.  “Here, you two, take a couple of these and put them on your plate before they're all gone,” he says.  “The wife didn't have time to make anything, so we picked these up at Oakmont Bakery.  Go ahead, have some.”  

I reach for a chocolate thumb-print and place it on my empty plate.  “Thank you,” I say, “but

was everyone supposed to bring something?  We weren't, were we?”

“Sure, everyone was,” he says, “but that's okay if you forgot.  There's plenty.” 

             Still  I insist, “We never had to bring anything other years,”

“Yeah, we always do,” he says.  “But, hey! don't worry about it.  There's always stuff left over, you know that!”

“Well, okay,” I say, and decide to let it go, although I know he's mistaken.

The sound and smell of hamburgers and hot dogs sizzling on the grill beckon now, so we take leave of the cookie man.  

Standing between grill and food table  is a woman, about seventy or so. She smiles and says, “Hi!  We have hamburgers and we have hot dogs.  Which will it be?” 

“No chicken this year?” Al asks.

She's still smiling.  “No, no chicken,” she says

“No chicken, eh?  Oh well.  Is there beer?” 

The woman laughs as if that's funny. “Of course not!” she says. 

“How about pop?”

“Well, no.  No pop.  But there's your choice of lemonade or iced tea or fruit punch in those pitchers at the end of the buffet.” 

I look over to where she is pointing and notice some foods are in pretty little flowered casseroles.  Nice change from the usual tinfoil disposables most caterers use, I think, but not very practical.    

“And be sure to help yourself to corn-on-the-cob.” the woman continues.  “It's good and sweet this year.  So, now then, what will it be, hamburger or hot dog?”

Al says “hamburger”, and I say “hot dog”.  We collect the other food we want, and a drink each, and then, seeing no one to sit with, choose two places at the end of the farthest table. Al sits down and is quiet for a minute, then looks around, then immediately starts eating at great speed.

“Whoa!” I whisper.  “Slow down!  You're actually shoveling the food into your mouth!  What's your problem?”

“Shh!  Just hurry up and eat!” he whispers back.  “Hurry and eat up what's on your plate.  We have to get out of here!  It finally dawned on me – we're at the wrong picnic!”

“We're what?”

“At the wrong picnic!  Look down there.”  He points to beyond the tennis courts, where smoke rises from a very large grill, and where a great many people have gathered around Shelter Number Two..  

            “That's where we're supposed to be,” he says..  “Keep eating!”

“Oh!  This is awful!” I say.  “We  have to apologize and then leave right away!” 

“Are you crazy?” he says.  “And waste all this good food?  We'll finish eating, and then leave.”

            “But, Al!  We can't just eat their food and not explain!”

“Listen, Mary!  Just keep your mouth shut, and eat!”

“I will not keep my mouth shut,” I say.  “Besides, I've lost my appetite.  I'm getting up right now and apologizing!” 

“Who will you apologize to?  You going to stand up and make a general announcement?  Like,   Attention ladies and gentlemen!  I'd like to apologize!”   Forget it!  Just keep eating!”

I push my chair back, but before I can get up, a woman from another table comes and sits across from us..  

She smiles at me.  “Hello!” she says.  “Where do I know you from?”

Oh how tactfully she puts it, I think. Where does she know me from indeed!  I'll bet they've all been buzzing, “Who are those two?  And they didn't  even bring anything!”  

           “I'm afraid I have to apologize,” I say.  “You see, my husband and I thought this was the O'Hara Township picnic, and we never realized our mistake until we had already piled our plates with food.”

            I give her a second or two to digest it all, intending no pun, and then I go on to say, “You have no idea how stupid I feel, or how embarrassed I am.  Please forgive us.”

            At first, all the woman says is “Oh,” but before I can wonder what to do next, she says, “My dear,  please don't be embarrassed.  Why, that kind of mistake is the most natural thing in the world.  In fact, you know what?  One time, I was at a funeral home, and when I looked in the open coffin and saw the corpse, I said, 'Who in the world is that?'   Wrong funeral home, of course.  So you see, dear, these things do happen”

            Not for a minute do I believe her funeral home story, but I'm so overwhelmed with gratitude that I want to hug her on the spot.  Instead, I ask, “Which group is it that's having this picnic?”

“The English Lutheran Church in Sharpsburg.” she says.. “We're a small congregation.  We've known each other, most of us, all our lives.  Every summer we enjoy an afternoon picnic together, but this is the first time we decided to rent a shelter here to hold it in.”

“I know that church,” I say, “and I love it!  It's a registered historic landmark, isn't it?  I passed it often on my morning walks when I used to go all the way to Sharpsburg and back.  I don't walk quite that far anymore, but I have always admired your church and wished I could tour the inside.” 

“My dear!” she says, and I know she's pleased, because she reaches across the table and places her hand on mine.  “We would be so happy to show you around!  Do come by some time.  Our Sunday services are at eleven.”

            Feeling better, my appetite returned, I decide I just might take her up on her offer some day.  So the two of us exchange names, and I apologize again and tell her it's a lovely picnic, and how delicious all the food is.  She tells me that's because everyone brings something, and it's almost an unspoken contest each year to see who brings the best.  And all the while we are chit-chatting,  Al is quietly clearing away his plate and mine.  He throws them into a nearby trash can, tells the nice lady to have a nice day, and leaves.  To me, over his shoulder, he says, “See you down at the other shelter, Mary.  No hurry, Honey.  Take your time.”  (So now it's okay for me to take my time?)

  When I finally join the township group, I see that Al, seated at table with a plateful of 

barbecued chicken and a can of beer in front of him, is holding court, telling our story.  Everyone seated

around him is laughing. 

“So!” one of them says as I slip into the seat Al has saved for me, “Are you coming to check 

out our food now, Mary?  Didn't you read the invitation?  It has right on it in black and white, that the 

picnic this year is in Shelter Number Two.”

“Really!” I say, and give him the sweetest smile I know how to smile.  “Obviously, Al and I 

missed that tiny detail.”

There follows more teasing, and Al and I do our share in rebuttal.  How good it is to be with them all, and in the place at last where we're invited to be.

Much later, as we get up to leave, from one of the back tables, I hear, “Hey, Kinsels!  What's 

your rush?  The party's still young.”

“We have to hurry home and get the car,” I say.  “We want to ride around Sharpsburg and see if there's another picnic we can crash.”