A Stack of Photographs

by Ron Russo

I recently found a photograph, tucked inside an envelope within the large photo album that contains old family pictures. It wasn’t a photo I remembered, and it took me a while to figure the setting. My mother and her four sisters are seated in beach chairs, each of their husbands standing behind. And comfortably ensconced on Aunt Catherine’s lap is a red-headed, beaming four-year-old. That four- year-old is me.

After a moment’s thought, I realize that the picture’s setting is Bethpage State Park. Once or twice a year, the family would gather and go on a day-long picnic. Since neither my parents, nor any of my aunts and uncles, owned a house with a backyard, we always held our picnics at Bethpage.

What a thrill these gatherings provided! All the cars would rendezvous in front of someone’s home, then they’d follow each other to the picnic grounds. We’d meet at seven in the morning, usually on a Sunday. Each car was exploding with people and goods. To an outsider, it must have looked as if we were going on vacation. Food for three, yes three meals; folding chairs, blankets, portable radios, barbecue grills, charcoal, plates and cups, utensils, changes of clothing, The night before one of these events my mother would be lining up goods to bring, checking items against her list. “It looks like we’re going on a goddam safari,” she’d inevitably say. “It’d be easier to move.”

Once we got started, the four or five cars would compete to get to the toll booths on the Southern State Parkway first and pay the toll for all the cars following. Once in a while there’d be a slip-up and some stranger’s car would break into our line-up and get a freebie on the toll.

Picking the spot to settle in was worthy of a project for the United Nations. Too open, too shady, too sunny, too many tables nearby, too far from the restrooms, too close to the restrooms. When a decision was finally made, the cars would start to unload.

First item of business: get a fire going. That was my father’s specialty. Next, fill a huge pot with water to brew coffee. Oh, the smell of that coffee as it started to perc, wafting through the outdoors. Meanwhile my dad and one or two uncles would start heating a few griddles, which ultimately would fry the bacon. Then the eggs were cooked, sunny-side-up. Italian bread would get sliced and quick-toasted on the griddle, giving it a hint of bacon taste.

After breakfast, someone would take me and my cousins to the playground. We’d scurry around like wild creatures, competing for the swings, slides, monkey bars. It usually took a major effort to get us back to the picnic tables.

But back we’d go, as preparations for the mid-day meal were beginning. The women would start setting the table, and the men would start drinking beer. Each household would have brought a pot of spaghetti sauce – – specifically, the same tomato sauce with meatballs and sausage that we’d be eating if we were at home. Huge pots of water were put up to boil the pasta as the sauces heated. Bottles of red wine emerged as everyone sat for a midday meal.

Afterwards it was rest time – – and why not? Both the men and the women would have been working hard for the last five hours. And would have downed a fair bit of beer and wine. Aunts and uncles would sprawl across blankets or on beach chairs and try to catch a nap. But there wasn’t much quiet. Someone always had a story to tell or a child to keep tabs on.

Around four-thirty, we’d finally turn into an American family. Hot dogs, hamburgers and chicken would appear once the fires were again stoked on the grills. And potato salad. And cole slaw. And sliced tomatoes. Everyone would groan, “Who wants hamburgers after all we’ve had to eat already. Next year we’re going to simplify this.” But eat we did, and heartily. Someone would invoke an old Italian saying, “L’appetito viene mangiando” which is to say “Appetite comes with eating.”

As the sun would start to set, we’d begin packing up. This was the saddest time; I wanted these picnics to go on forever. One year – – perhaps the year in which the photo was taken – – I begged to drive home with my Aunt Catherine and Uncle John. They were my favorites. Often, at the end of a visit, either or both of them would catch me alone and slip me a ten-dollar bill. “Don’t tell your mother,” they’d say. I got my wish after Aunt Catherine yelled at my mother that it was fine for me to ride with her. About halfway home, I got carsick and vomited into my aunt’s lap. My mother wanted to kill me when we got home and she saw the mess I’d made, but Aunt Catherine shushed her, said it was worth it to have me in the car, and that was that.

Each following year, until I was in my late teens, we’d have the annual picnic. Thank goodness, I never vomited on anyone again. And though it was still suggested, the meals never got “simplified.” Appetite always came with eating.

Ron Russo has been motivated to write by participating in a number of writing study groups given at the LP². My thanks to coordinators and fellow writers.