My Mother’s Picnic Basket

johnny-automatic-picnic-basket-800pxMy mother spent the entire week stoking the flames of our expectations.

She reminded us over and over that on Sunday afternoon all of our aunts, uncles and cousins were getting together for a family picnic at Silver Lake Park.

Our excitement hit fever pitch by Sunday morning.

So what did she say the minute we got home from church?

“Who wants to help me peel potatoes?”

Outside the kitchen window, a flotilla of clouds sailed majestically across the sky and somewhere under those clouds, our cousins were leaping out of station wagons and bounding like antelope toward the ball fields and tilt-o-whirls of Silver Lake Park…


“Can’t we just GO!” we cried.

“What would a picnic be without potato salad?” she asked.

“Why didn’t we make it last night?” we cried.

The question shocked her and it took her a moment to shake off the confusion.

“Then it wouldn’t be FRESH,” she said.

For my mother, the word FRESH possessed magical powers. She was among the last of the traditional mothers of the post-war era, and while all of her sisters and lady friends had found employment outside the home, my mother clung to her own apron strings.

FRESH was the talisman she used to protect herself against the larger homes, the newer cars and the more stylish clothes her peers possessed. They may have these things – but they did not have FRESH.

“Check to see if the bread dough has risen,” she commanded one of the girls.

A sister confirmed that it had and we held our collective breath while mother verified this to be true. . Could she really make us wait for dough to rise?

We all knew the answer to that.

As the bread baked, we sliced potatoes, diced onions and shredded carrots. When all that was done, we mixed it all into her big special potato salad bowl and sealed it with sheets of aluminum foil.

“Can we go SOON?” we asked.

“After we bake the pies,” she said.

Out came the lard, out came the flour, out came the sifter along with the big bread board and the rolling pin. We all knew how to make pies and flew through the task: flattening the crust dough, flopping it into the pans, halving the FRESH strawberries and cutting the FRESH rhubarb and slicing the remainder of the dough into strips that we used thatch the pies.

“When the pies are done, can we PLEASE GO?” we pleaded.

“Not until the sandwiches are made and the pickles wrapped in waxed paper,” she said.

And finally, FINALLY… after the last pie, the last thermos, the last crock of baked beans and the last of the potato salad had crested the rim of my mother’s big wicker picnic basket – did she gaze up at the clock.

“Oh dear, we better get going,” she exclaimed.

We all tumbled into our station wagon and dieseled down the street. Twenty minutes later, as we puttered through an expanding suburb, my mother turned to my father and said in almost a whisper, “Jack?

Dad knew what this was about.

“We are not moving to the suburbs,” he said with absolute finality, “We can’t afford it.”

“But there is no harm in looking…” she said.

We all groaned. “Can’t we just GO TO THE PICNIC?” we cried.

“We’re only looking,” she said, “it won’t take a minute.”

And that was that.

The truth is, she had two models to look at but we only had time to look at the first. So my mother made my father promise to swing by the second on our way home.

An hour later, we pulled into Silver Lake Park just as everyone was sitting down to eat.

My mother pulled out her big wicker basket and spread her red checkered tablecloth out on the picnic table. She arranged the potato salad, the baked beans, the pies and the sandwiches in a long line and invited everyone, family and friends, to help themselves.

While the aunts and uncles complemented her on her cooking, we grabbed what we could and bolted off to play, ignoring the stern warnings to “let your food digest.”

All too soon the summer sun turned deep yellow and sank in the western sky. Our cousins said their good-byes and piled back into their station wagons then vanished into a thin haze of exhaust.

We were the last to leave.

“I guess we better get going if we are going to have time to look at the model,” my dad said.

At first my mother didn’t say a word. She scrapped the plates into the trash and rinsed out the cups at the water pump. She folded her tablecloth and placed it at the bottom of the basket. On top of that, she piled the plates and pie tins – then she closed her picnic basket and sat down on a bench..

As she gazed at her children bounding across the ball fields and spinning madly on the tilt-a-whirls, she pulled the basket onto her lap and rested her hands on the lid.

“No,” she said with a deep sigh, “let the kids play.”

Dad nodded in agreement.

Author: Almost Iowa

45 thoughts on “My Mother’s Picnic Basket”

  1. I couldn’t get in the spirit for this one. Gad. Forget the friggin’ potato salad–and I love potato salad. I would have been apoplectic, as a child. As an adult, I’d say “Well, dear, fresh potato salad and pie would have been lovely, but it’s a little too late now for THIS picnic. We’ll be stopping at KFC. Please do come with us–or stay home, if you like, to finish your cooking and baking, and we’ll enjoy it all tonight when we get back.”

  2. Great story! My grandma was a lot like this- whenever we would go to visit, if there were any plans to go anywhere it took foreverrrrr. My mom was kind of the opposite though, I think in rebellion to her mom’s ways.

    1. “I think in rebellion to her mom’s ways.”

      That’s the way I was. When my wife and I planned a family picnic at Silver Lake Park, I would rush out the door and charge up the street.

      “Dad, shouldn’t we take the car? It’s a long, long way away.” my kids would cry.

      I’d shout back over my shoulder, “We don’t have time!”

  3. Loved this post! My mom wasn’t one to make a lot of things from scratch, but she did have a list of “things to finish” before we headed out on any family outing, so I know how hard it was to wait as a kid. My grandmother, on the other hand, made homemade EVERYTHING, and it was wonderful!

    1. “but she did have a list of “things to finish” before we headed out on any family outing”

      It must have been the worst thing in the world! 🙂

      1. I’m afraid too many kids these days will never have any understanding of our childhood values.

  4. Thank you for taking me to Iowa (almost). I live in England, and had an urban childhood in London. I really enjoy reading about a lifestyle so different to my own!

    1. I grew up in the city too but we retired to my wife’s hometown. In many ways it is not so different from where I grew up. Tightly knit neighborhoods function just like small towns. The stories I hear now are the same stories I overheard as a kid.

      What is most different is that in the city, people move away but others move in. In the country, it is almost always – people moving away.

      Almost Iowa is a ghost town, literally. It was centered around a store and creamery both of which are now occupied only by raccoons and ghosts.

  5. I bet your pops really (deep down) wanted to buy her one of those homes. I didn’t have a mom like that, she worked and we survived off TV dinners and pot pies and Kraft Mac N Cheese. (Or Colonel Sanders across the street) until my stepdad entered the picture.

    But, I did help my grandma make bread dough, the yeast, covering it and letting the dough rise. I was always so impatient. Fresh out of the oven, My grandma let me eat as much as I wanted. I loved it. The rest of the food was nasty, but the bread and pies- yeah!

    I remember shoving all my cousins into a station wagon. All sitting on top of each other to get into the Drive-in theater. We saw Smokey and the Bandit, and Grease so many times!

    1. “The rest of the food was nasty”

      I don’t know why she did it, but my mother would take perfectly fresh and tasty broccoli, cauliflower and spinach then steam the character out of them, leaving only tasteless glop.

  6. There are 9 in my family. We needed a BIG station wagon to go to anything be it church, town, or a picnic. There was hardly room behind the back row of seating for anything like a picnic basket. But we managed. Sometimes we even brought the makings for homemade ice cream.

    1. The only thing that allowed our eleven kids and two parents to crowd into a ’57 Chevy wagon – was the lack of seat belts. Most cars then didn’t come with them. I shudder to think of what would have happened if we would have gotten into a wreck. My mother always had a baby on her lap and a toddler between her and my father in the front bench seat.

      I spent most of my career working for the police… a number of my colleagues worked those wrecks….

  7. This story touched me deeply and fueled a nostalgia for the founding mothers of my life. Three precious tears washed my morning face. Thank you.

  8. No picnic basket, but I remember Granddad insisting everything has to be ready before we could go. And I remember playing while adults sat in wait. Being a grown up looked so boring.

    1. “Being a grown up looked so boring.”

      And upon growing up, we found that our worst fears were realized. Adulthood is BORING and kids get all the cool stuff… except for bulldozers, we still get the real ones.

  9. What a reminder of our picnic basket. It was woven, good-sized, with a lid divided into two sections by hinges. There were red, blue, and yellow plastic plates, with cups to match. The red, yellow and blue-handled cutlery was held on the underside of the lid by elastic bands. And there was a wooden rack inside, so you could put the pie on the bottom without it being damaged.

    I have no idea what happened to it, and I wish I still had it. But I still have my mom’s apron, and I still make potato salad her way. I think she and your mom would have gotten along very well.

  10. Somewhere in amongst all the family stuff we have collected in our 38 years together plus what has made its way here from both sets of departed parents, is the box of family photos passed down from even older generations. Those black and white pictures of mostly unknown, or at least so much younger as to be hard to recognize, relatives. The little 3″ by 3″ prints with the scalloped edges and brown fading creeping in. I’m old enough, sigh, to remember some of the scenes in these old photos though most were snapped before I came around. But the lawn at my grandparents (only my dad’s parents survived for me to know) was always filled on those Sunday afternoons after church with the ladies in their dresses and the men in coats and ties. Whatever happened to coats and ties? And those Bogart hats raked at just the right angle. And lace veils draped over the women’s eyes hiding their looks out at all of us. Family noir.

    Those same photos now would only show the tops of everyones heads as they stared at their devices.

    1. “Sunday afternoons after church with the ladies in their dresses and the men in coats and ties. Whatever happened to coats and ties?”

      What has always struck me about those old photos is how mature everyone appeared. I have a photo of my father at 22 who looks more mature than any of his children did in their 40’s.

      Of course, we didn’t have to join the CCC’s at 16 to support our families or be shipped off to New Guinea to fight the Japanese. Those experiences leave a mark of maturity.

    1. Now, now, you know that everything I write is the absolute, swear-it-on-a-stack-of-bibles truth… except in this case I think my siblings would say, “that is not the half of it.” 🙂

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