Yesterday afternoon I stood for three hours in front of a charcoal grill, moving meat and meat-like objects over heat in order that the attendees of this year's Sequoia Elementary School Welcome Back Picnic could (in the words of Beldar Conehead) consume mass quantities. This has become something of a tradition with my family, ending the summer with a sun-baked gorge-fest under the towering redwood trees in the park up the street. As I stood there, spatula in hand, I began to reflect on summers long since past.
The summers of my youth ended with a family reunion, my mother's side of the family, at our cabin in the mountains above Boulder. The Johnson Family Picnic was a gala affair, attended by generations of cousins that I still cannot name. Weeks ahead of the actual event, I created dozens of hand-drawn invitations for relatives whose connections to me were always more clear in the abstract than in reality. Then, with just a few days to go, my brothers and I would make signs to point our town-based folk down the twisting mountain roads to our cabin in the woods. The morning of the picnic came and we were up early, loading tubs ice with soda and beer. We kept the overflow cool in the creek that ran just down the hill from us. And then we waited.
Sometime before noon, we saw the dust kicking up at the bottom of our driveway, and we knew that it had begun. Hugs were exchanged, coolers were unloaded, pictures were snapped, and "my how you've grown." There were tables full of salad, but we all held out for the burgers that came from one of two grills that filled the air with the smells of late summer. When everyone got fat and happy, we waddled on down to the meadow for a game of volleyball, while some of the old-timers worked out the horseshoe pit. Back up on the front porch, stories about the olden days filled the late afternoon.
Then it was time to go. The soda was gone, the cans waited to be crushed in a barrel next to the front steps. "Oh take that home, it'll keep in the fridge." Coolers were shoved back into trunks. More hugs, and promises of return the next year. We walked to the end of our driveway as the last car backed down slowly to the road and picked up the sign pointing the way. Maybe we could use it again next year.
Back in 2006, I awoke from my reverie in time to watch the water balloon toss, and then went to join in the kids-versus-dads tug of war. Then I went back and had a burger. Summer's almost over.