“Does he take you on picnics?” she asks.
He does. But you are much too contemporary to think he takes you on them. You take yourself. With him.
She pffs. A shadow crosses her face. “On Sundays?”
“On Anydays,” You tell her.
She wants to know if you pack cheese and crackers or deviled eggs or ham salad or watermelon. And you tell her sometimes you just stop for fast-food. Because who has time for food that contains mayonnaise and mustard?
“How about sweet gherkins?” she asks.
Sometimes, you say, and lie.
“Bread and butter pickles?”
Your grandmother loves pickles. She can grow cucumbers and turn them into pickles, like magic, and one day she will teach you. She speaks of strange things like cider vinegar and mustard seed and turmeric, wide-mouth jars and seals. You can’t help but think this conversation is going so far away from what you thought you’d be talking about: your hunky boyfriend. You sigh. Your grandmother squints her eyes and says, “Don’t go on too many picnics.”
You are confused. First, she wants you to go on them and pack food. And eat pickles. But now she says not too many.
“We used to do, that, your grandpa and I.”
What? You want to know? They used to eat pickles? Can pickles? Go on picnics? Eat food with mayonnaise and mustard. With seeds. And vinegar. All you can say is, “Oh?”
“Boy, was he good-lookin.’” Her eyes became like prisms; irresistible and sparkly.
You feel happy for her, thinking of your handsome, young grandfather. That slicked-back hair, his white tee-shirt. Did he wear khaki pants and belts then, too?
“Loved that man’s smile. All wool and a mile wide.”
You love her old-fashioned ways of describing things. You want to know where she’d go and she rattles off parks like Oak Grove and Doling Grove Park and Phelp’s Grove and you wonder, ‘why all the groves?’
“Oh boy. We had dreams,” she says.
You shrug. Look around. Frames askew on the wall. Smiling faces. Houses and parked cars with children sitting on hoods. “Didn’t most of them come true?”
Darkness glides over her face, a layer of ash. “We talked about getting a canoe and painting it. White. Maybe powder blue.”
You think maybe she wanted to get away. Float. Splash. Deluge. You tell her that sounds nice. Because it does. A glossy white canoe skimming across the blue waters of the lake at one of the grove parks where they went for picnics, eating pickles. You add to the story, asking about gazebos and little islands and friends. Did you double-date? You want to know. You list names of your grandmother’s friends. Esther and Lorraine and Ramona. Did they have—beaus—you say? You use the antiquated term because this is the language your grandmother knows. She does not get ‘dude,’ or ‘guy,’ or ‘boy,’ because boys are children. These are men. Grandfathers. Before. They Became.
“No, no,” she chuckles. “Well, sometimes,” she confesses. “Mostly, we were alone.”
“What did you talk about?”
“Talk?” She says.
Your grandmother can arch her eyebrow. You did not realize she could do this.
“There wasn’t much talking, honey.” She tells you.
You feel your face burn. You cannot imagine anything so indecent. Your grandmother! Your grandfather! Doing things that require no talking. It’s beyond anything.
She goes away for a moment, in her mind, leaving you. So you imagine. The branches of the oak. The water lapping that canoe. You see the empty pickle jar and the packet of sunflower seeds scattered on the bottom of the boat. You see the paddle fall in. You see your grandfather reach over to grab it. The dark hair on his tanned forearm goes flat. His fingers drip with water. The paddle is gone. Floating down.
You ask about plaid blankets and blue skies and willow branches. And she says, “No, none of that.”
None? You don’t believe it. There had to have been a blue sky. Because who has a picnic when it rains? When the sky is pewter? There had to have been a plaid blanket. Maybe not a willow, you concur.
She turns away and looks at her hands. Nails like smooth sea shells. “But there was a baby.”
You think maybe she’s back to pickles. Baby dills. So you ask that.
“Well,” she says. “No. Not a baby, not exactly, but a seed. That’s what happened on a picnic,” she says.
As your mind connects your grandmother’s euphemisms—and the implications—so many implications—you feel that scarlet color again. OH!
“So you see, unless you want a baby with that boy…don’t go on picnics,” she tells you.
Forest for the Trees, Leslie Lindsay