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JOHNNY ROBINSON: The Many Joys of Backyard Picnicking

In the warmer months we ate dinner on the picnic table in our backyard almost every single day. I’m not talking about dining on a screened porch or patio just out a door adjacent to the kitchen; I’m talking about eating seated on worn benches at an old wooden picnic table out in the middle of the backyard. On the grass lawn. Open to nature as in ants, bees, and other insects included. And not even on the same level as our kitchen. The trays of utensils and platters and bowls of food had to be carried through the house and down the basement stairs and out the back door and down more steps from the porch and into the yard. It took some effort. It was different.

Besides being uniquely situated, our outside dinners were otherwise old-fashioned family affairs. The daily picnic was where we – my parents and my brother and two sisters and I – reviewed the events of the day, shared stories, made future plans. The mood was light and happy; disciplinary action and other unpleasantness in general being left for other venues.

Much of the table conversation was directed by my parents, of course. and there were always tales from my dad about the day in the dental office, about his staff and his patients. Often he would say, “None of this leaves this table, you understand?” And we would nod solemnly. Sometimes my parents passed between them tidbits not wholly meant for us kids. While we might have appeared distracted and cutting up with each other I guarantee you we missed not a lick of those exchanges.

Interspersed between the threads of serious discourse was what I remember best: plenty of laughs in the air around that picnic table, the full-blown giggle fits we had as little kids. Some such episodes – giggling with mouths full – even resulted in spewing food – milk (often up the nose) and particularly all over the table. Spectacular.

Ah, I can see it now, the table set with those 1970’s hexagonal, heavy yellow plates and basic flatware. It’s spread out on the pale blue, vinyl, kind of sticky tablecloth – the one with the creeping vines design.

We’d carry the bowls of food, plates and dishes and utensils to the picnic table – via that roundabout route I described earlier – in our grubby hands. We also utilized a couple of weathered metal trays, one of which was particularly battle-worn, light green with streaks of rust showing through where the enamel was rubbed thin from use.

With our hands full we became adept at opening the doors along the way with bare feet or an elbow or a head held just so. The cantankerous screen door at the back stoop was the last bastion to negotiate and to do so required deft footwork as well as a fully extended pinky finger to operate the latch. We of course were expert at it from young ages.

Almost home free with our burden, we merely had to breeze across the back porch, down the last few stairs of crumbling concrete to the yard and across the grass. By the way, that cement slab porch was often inhabited and traversed by garden slugs, and as a bonus nature encounter it wasn’t unusual for one of us – since we couldn’t see too well over our trays – to step on one of the gooey, sticky creatures with feet that didn’t see shoes for at least three months of the year. All this time later I still feel like I’m trying to get that stuff off the soles of my feet.

Then as now I loved the feel of the fresh evening air, the open sky overhead. The breeze, whether barely perceptible or hair-tousling. The clouds continually changing shape, decaying as the day’s heat dissipated, passing silently overhead. That evening sky in mute testimony to the shenanigans at the picnic table below.

We always had at least one cat when I was growing up, sometimes two or three, and of course they would be in attendance at our daily picnics. The cats were opportunistic eaters, and if in the course of bringing the food to the table we left it briefly unattended, the cats would naturally help themselves. “Inky!” “Lincoln!” “Scram!”

And we had dogs too, if you include all the neighbor’s canines which would regularly pass through the yard as we ate. Dogs were free to roam then, don’t forget. Louie the hound, Penny the collie, and Happy the cocker spaniel were but a few of our canine friends.

On the menu for our backyard picnics was anything fairly cheap and easy to fix. After all, what I’m describing is not “al fresco,” it was “eating on a splintery picnic table in the backyard.” My mom had neither the inclination nor the time to expend on more elaborate victuals, and of course we were happy anyway.

Accordingly. we ate canned spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, jars of applesauce, Shake n’ Bake pork chops, frozen peas boiled, sweet potatoes, canned beans. Oh and lots of instant mashed potatoes – now there’s an ingenious invention. And usually Rainbow sliced white bread spread with oleo margarine. Milk for the kids, iced tea for my parents. In the summer, fragrant mint grew luxuriantly along the tiny creek that trickled gently through the back edge of our yard, and one of us kids would daily fetch some it for the tea.

At our backyard perch we could hear lots of other goings on besides our own talking and giggling. Songs of birds and the buzz of bees, for starters. And there were usually dogs barking, and a basketball being dribbled and bounced against the backboard at the end of the Fisher’s driveway. Squeals of kids playing, the ones whose moms had not yet called them home for dinner – or supper as the case may be. And yes we’d hear moms making those calls. “Suzy!” “Blair!” “Tyler!” “Bobby!” “Suuupperrrrtimmme!”

For lots of American families at the time the dinner table was the one place where everyone got together everyday. It was kind of the center of family life. It’s not the same today – so many other distractions including the crazy number of extracurricular activities available. Gosh I feel lucky to have had the experience I had – the fun, the closeness, the security of my family around that table.

As time went on I realized how unique were those daily backyard picnics and how affirming they were to me and my family. They were a source of sustenance for me in a lot more ways than one, that’s for sure.

John Robinson

– Johnny Robinson


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