Montana Picnic

Emma carried the big, yellow Pyrex bowl filled with potato salad and covered with clean dish towel across the bit of pasture between her house and that of her daughter, Mary Ruth. Her ten year old granddaughter, Linda Louise, danced along beside her, proud to be going with grandma.

“Mother’s here,” called Helen who quickly put out her cigarette. It wouldn’t do for “Mom” to see her smoking.

Martha Ann looked up. Too small to be useful, but not too young to be interested, she saw her grandma hand the bowl to Uncle Hank and then lift the top wire and push down the middle wire of the barbed wire fence so she could come through.

“I’ll build you a gate, Mrs. Beall.”

“The day I can’t climb through a barbed wire fence, Hank,” she laughed.

But the next day, Hank cut the wire and put in a makeshift gate. A a year later, that section of the fence was wood with a gate that latched.

The late afternoon Montana light broke against the distant Beartooths. Martha Ann saw how the golden rays hit her grandmother’s white, white hair making a halo around the old woman’s face.

The potato salad was set on the table with everything else. Florence, Mrs. Beall’s oldest, arrived in her red Mercury with her youngest, Ed, and her teen-aged daughter, Harriet. Her oldest, John, had joined the service and was in Japan. He’d sent grandma gaudy silk pillow covers with Mt. Fuji embroidered on them.

“You still driving that old Merc, Sister?” asked Stocky, the husband of the youngest of the Beall girls. “How many miles on that thing?”

“It gets us there,” said Florence. Her husband had died the year before.

Mary Ruth was wearing Martha Ann’s favorite dress. It was chartreuse, with a beaded and embroidered pin that looked to Martha Ann like the Ford emblem on the front of the family car. She called it the “Tennessee Ernie Ford” dress and no one understood why, but it made sense in the logic of a five year old. Her little brother, Kirk, was trying on everybody’s hat.

“Hide your hats!” said his cousin Greg, learning Kirk was coming.

“Is the chicken ready? Why do you use that electric skillet?” asked Helen. “Frying that way adds a lot of fat.” Helen had recently been diagnosed with hypertension and high cholesterol. “I suppose you use lard?”

“Crisco,” Mary Ruth answered putting her lips together. 

“You should use corn oil. It’s low in cholesterol.”

“I suppose you use margarine, too?”

“Who made the pies?” asked Bill, Martha Ann’s dad. “Did you, Mrs. Beall?”

“No, Madylene made them.”

“Well, she’s done you proud. They look beautiful. You taught her well.”

Madylene’s youngest was still a baby, the next youngest, Lee, was almost three and fascinated with Martha Ann’s little brother, Kirk. Her two boys, Paul and Tom, were in Rapelje with their other grandparents.

Martha Ann was happy to get some red Jell-o with fruit cocktail in it and a chicken wing. The pie had been apple and raisin and everyone thought it was almost as good as grandma’s.

The meal was eaten, the sun sank lower, the paper plates went into the trash. Martha Ann stared a while at her cousin Harriet’s vivid, red and pointy fingernails and developed a life-long antipathy for the look (they scared her).

“I think I’d best go home,” said grandma to Mary Ruth, buttoning her pink sweater over her apron against the evening chill.

“David! Greg!” called Uncle Hank to his sons. “Go home with your grandma. See she gets home safe.”

“Can I go?” Linda asked Kelly, her mother.

“Sure. Maybe Martha Ann would like to go.”

Martha Ann was suddenly alert. These were BIG kids. Greg was 11 and so was Linda. “I’m only five,” she thought.

“Mom?” she looked at her mother who nodded.

They crossed the pasture through the tall grass. The grasshoppers leapt into the air with the crackling whir of summer.

“Goodnight, kids,” said grandma at the back door. “Thanks for seeing me home.” She held each grandchild against her ample bosom and kissed each on the head. “Now be good,” she said, sending them off.

The kids raced back across the pasture. Because she was too small to manage it herself, Greg held the wires of the fence, and Martha Ann went through. This had been the most grown-up adventure of her life so far and she couldn’t wait for more.

“You kids want Popsicles?” Mary Ruth called out the backdoor.

With grandma gone, everyone could smoke in peace. The grownups all sat in a circle in the backyard, their cigarettes glowing ends of day against the purple coming night. Stories, disputes, and laughter rose with the smoke and settled in the memories of all the children.

13 thoughts on “Montana Picnic

    • I probably synthesized probably four or five picnics into this one story since they happened every summer and were more or less the same every summer. But somehow I knew at the time that they were magic. My grandmother was — I don’t actually know. I feel sometimes like she lives here with me even though she died when I was 10. I think she’s my muse. Everything I write goes back to her.

  1. I never knew any of my grandparents. They all died before I was three, so I only have stories. I’d like to think, had they lived, there’d have been some good memories. I think I’ll pretend yours are mine. I always wanted to grow up out west.

  2. Martha, what a lovely memoir! I almost felt I was there with you and your family. It’s wonderful to retain those memories across the years.
    Thank you!!

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