Most families have experienced an event, at one time or another, that they would really rather not share with anyone outside the family, for fear of looking bad. They may share it along with their coffee and pumpkin pie after a family Thanksgiving dinner, when everyone is feeling mellow, or over a cup of their brother-in-law’s famous eggnog at Christmas time, but they’d prefer that it not be paraded out as brazenly as a clothesline full of thongs at a Cheerleader’s summer camp, when it’s not only family, but friends and acquaintances present. They’re afraid of what people will think of them. But then,most families are not like my family; we enjoy telling a good tale or hearing a good tattle, especially if it’s on one of our own.
There is a video of my mother, Jean Stephenson, being quizzed by my son Steven, during one of dozens of interviews, which he used, in part, to compose a very enlightening family history book. In answer to the question “What do you think you could have been good at if you had chosen it as a career?” in the twinkle of an eye Mom answered with a smirk —“A drill sergeant!” As far as we, her family, are concerned she was not too far off the mark. She kept our house running efficiently, no matter what the challenge was, and on this one particular day, the household was ticking along like a Swiss clock,( a cuckoo clock, perhaps, but I’ll leave that for you to decide).
Before the sun was even up, Mom was frying chicken. The burners on the stove were all tied up, so everybody had cold cereal that morning. We were all so excited to be going on a picnic that no one even bothered to hide themselves behind a cereal box, from the tiresome view of a cranky sister or brother. Slurping the milk straight out of our Cheerio bowls, in a kitchen heated with the rush of excitement and smoking Crisco, the song that pulsated in the air— not audibly, but perceptible, nevertheless, was “A picnic! A picnic! We’re going on a picnic!” All eight of us kids, and Mom and Dad, would soon be on our way to Springbank Park, in London. These outings didn’t take place very often, so they were all the more delightful in their unexpectedness. Sundays were almost always the day we hosted others, rather than taking off for a day just for ourselves.
When the refrigerator was unloaded onto the table, with its bowls of potato salad, jello salad, and coleslaw, and the freshly baked upside- down cake was under its silver dome, when the ice was added to the lemonade in the big red Coleman thermos, and the bottles of formula were packed in amongst the diapers in the old blue diaper bag, when the melmac dishes and mismatched silverware and the stack of multi-coloured aluminum cups, and the salt and pepper shakers, and the tablecloths were also there, when the balls and bats and badminton racquets, and the blankets for resting on were all lined up and ready to go, and when the fried chicken was all snuggled into the aluminum roasting pan, Mom called in the troops. She ordered everyone to grab what they could carry and head to the car.
Much jostling and jimmying, and wiggling and wedging took place to accommodate all of us and our bountiful supplies. We were all excited and grinning, and happy—even the two who were in the very back seat of the station wagon, facing where they came from.(One of them was me, the other was likely another of the family’s closet memoirists.) Much chattering and joking and singing led to an air of enormous excitement for everyone but Mom, who, somehow, was already snoring softly in the front seat, head leaning against the window.
Thirty minutes after loading up, we were at the park and out of the car again, being dispatched with bowls, balls, bottles and blankets to two nearby tables which Keith and Dad pushed together. After the tablecloths were on, and the stack of things was all ready to be opened, or uncovered, or unwrapped and arranged on the table, Mom asked Marsha to bring her baby Donny so that she could feed him first. The sky could have opened and a giant funnel cloud come down to suck her up, and Marsha would not have looked more stricken and horror- struck! “THE BABY!!” Mom shrieked. “WHERE’S THE BABY?!!” If our drinking cups had been glass, and not aluminum they would have surely shattered with the pitch of her panicked soprano plea.
Our mother didn’t have to issue a single order. Suddenly we were all as adrenaline- surged as Olympic athletes. One kid ran by, carrying a watermelon under one arm, and toddler Jimmy under the other. Someone else threw all the balls, bats and badminton racquets onto the blanket and took off like Santa stealing a sack full of toys. The thermos jug and the diaper bag were launched with the skill of a Highland Games’ Champ, into the extra back seat, from several feet away. Dad ran by with the roasting pan full of chicken, the silver cake dome on top of that, and a red tablecloth wrapped around his neck flying out behind him like Superman’s cape. Kids jumped into the car and seated themselves in any direction necessary, bowls, bags, and boxes on laps, floors, and feet when called for.
As the last door slammed loudly shut, Dad turned the key and revved the Pontiac engine, in anticipation of its gas- guzzling race toward home. Only guilt, and high-test gasoline could shorten a half hour ride into twenty minutes. Only fear could make it feel like two hours. No one spoke of what they were thinking— that baby Donny could have been stolen by now by that dirty guy who had once come to our door to try to sell us fish, or that he could have realized that we had left him all alone in the house and cried until he choked, or that Marsha might have left him outside on the porch where a wolf came along and grabbed him, or that a bird pooped in his eye. Fear brought its own age- appropriate burden to each heart.
Dad struggled to get the key into the lock at home, his hands trembling, from either the ride behind him or the moment ahead. When we all burst into the dining room, we found our precious baby Donny in his basket on the middle of the table. He had been sleeping in that spot since the moment he had been placed there, awaiting his transport an hour before. We huddled around him like Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds and the wise men in the plaster nativity set we put under our tree every Christmas; he was that precious! Unpacking the car could wait, the chicken, the salads, the cake, it could all wait. We were all safely back together again and that was the only thing that mattered.