The Berman Family Picnic

Submitted into Contest #138 in response to: Write a story about an afternoon picnic gone wrong.... view prompt


Drama Holiday

March 22nd. The Berman's annual family picnic. Compulsory for those with any measure of blood or marital tie to my family, and any attempt at truancy draws my mother's wrath, Helen Berman, a fate worse than death. My cousin had an emergency appendectomy just days before the big event a few years ago. My mother dragged her out of the hospital in a wheelchair, IV pole still attached.

If my family's mandatory gathering was good food, great banter, and high-spirited merriment, I'd be there with bells on. But this particular picnic is an annual disaster.

The bus pulls up at Centenary Lake Park, and I amble through the aisle of standing room only, slowly escaping the unwashed smells of the city. Arms laden with containers of my famous carrot cake loaf with cream cheese icing, I start on the path to the loan white oak bordering the lake's edge and the park's namesake. Every year since the day my mother wielded a closed umbrella like a club to forcefully removed a family of 6, the spot beneath the oak has been conveniently vacant. I often wonder if Helen takes premeditated strolls through the park in the weeks leading up, brandishing her umbrella and remarking her territory. It's not a great stretch of the imagination. 

I readjust my hold on the Tupperware and crest the manicured hill, my legs picking up an awkward pace as I start my descent to the oak. The creamy, vanilla scent of icing carries on a gentle breeze, and I sigh, relieved to have drawn the sweet card this year. Last March, I spent a week googling savory recipes that would cut the mustard with my fussy nephews. I forfeited the week of and settled on pizza, much to their father's dismay. The year before that, I drew decorations, then forgot to shop for them until the eve of. Helen was not impressed when I arrived with the only decor I could find at short notice. Black balloons and a 'sorry for your loss' banner. As mortifying as my contribution was, it didn't take the disaster-born cake that year.

Oh no. That award went to my uncle Frank. In a stroke of genius, as he assured my Aunt Celia, he parked their brand new Escalade on the hillside above the lake. A shorter hike with the picnic tables and chairs and a much quicker haul with Uncle Sylvester, Frank's churlish brother. Sans leg and several digits thanks to his unhealthy relationship with sugar and insistence that Diabetes is a 'gimmick.' Just as the last dish hit the table and bums tucked hungrily into chairs, the recalled handbrake failed. The black monstrosity rolled down the hill, plowing through our gathering like an orchestrated Mafia hit. I would have been suspicious if my uncle Frank wasn't the most vanilla, suburban dad ever to wear loafers. But no. The Berman family picnic had struck again. 

The same tables draped in red and white gingham mark the area as I stumble off the hill. My family mill about in a flurry of activity, and I spare a look to the lake. A light breeze lulls white pond lilies into a rhythmic sway, expertly dodging iridescent butterflies. Though I feel the chaotic energy of the picnic already, I remind myself why I come every year.

"Elly," Aunt Celia calls, taking hurried steps that send her obnoxiously large necklace bouncing against her chest. She is the zing to my Uncle Frank's vanilla. Some would call it eccentric; I usually go with cooky.

"So good to see you, Aunt Celia. You're looking so, yellow." 

My Aunt does an extravagant twirl, her dress billowing like a vibrant mainsail. The strand of enormous wooden blocks swinging hazardously. 

"Can you believe I found it at an estate sale? Amazing what people don't pass on." 

I'm not sure if she's referring to the dress or the necklace, but I know better than to ask. Aunt Celia had a strange fascination for the unwanted. Her house was a cocktail of gifted, preloved, and upcycled nicknacks that she was unreasonably proud of.

"It's amazing. Let me put this down, and I'll see you in a bit." I turn to the tables just as the blurry outline of a child in a red baseball cap clips my outstretched arm, sending one of the cake containers to the grass with a wet slap. I groan inwardly, immediately tallying who gets this year's first strike. Me or my nephew, the aptly named Denis. My brother Darren chuckles, moving away from our extended family to offer outstretched arms. I hung him with fervor, even if his five boys share more DNA with the devil himself than their old man. 

"The kid. Definitely the kid." Darren smiles, following my thoughts. With barely 9 months between us, we just about share a nervous system. 

"Sorry, Aunty Elly," Denis calls, catching his brother's curveball. 

"Don't worry about it," I reply. "But you lot have to eat the squished carrot cake."

His little face lights up. "With cream cheese frosting?". I nod, and a chorus of chants and fist bumps trail the horde of little demons. 

"Kelly's not coming?" I ask after my sister-in-law, already knowing the answer.

"Duty calls." He winks, and I groan again. It must be nice to have a noble profession to fall back on when family occasions call for it. It's astounding that my mother hasn't yet caught on to Kelly's consistent absence on picnic day. Even nurses can get a personal day when they need it. Kelly's a damn genius. 

Another familiar pair of arms come around my shoulders, and I lean into the tweed jacket my dad wears every year without fail. 

"Hi honey," He hugs me tightly, then shake's Darren's hand. "It's good to see you out; you look so pale." 

Que the job pressure in 3...2... "Have you thought any more about moving into a different area of IT, consulting, or sales? I worry about you cooped up in your apartment all day."

I grip his hands tightly and put on my best 'i'm fine' face. "Dad, I like working from home. Can we not do this today, please?" He smiles sheepishly, and I kiss his cheek before moving through the crowd of relatives who are, for the most part, acquaintances. Finally, my favorite loafer sporting Uncle comes into view, and I near on bound up to his side. 

"Elle, great to see you. Have you found Celia yet?"

I grimace. "Hard to miss her, Uncle Frank. I'm worried she's emitting solar radiation." He throws his head back and laughs. Almost immediately interrupted by a rasping growl. 

"Take your barking elsewhere, Franklin. I want to listen to the birds." We wince in unison before I turn to Uncle Sylvester, parked beneath a low-hanging branch. My forced smile sets an ache in my jaw. 

"Hey, Uncle Syl, how have you been?" It takes everything in me not to inspect his remaining foot for any more missing toes. Sylvester waves me away and goes back to his perusal of the lake. I raise a brow at Frank.

"Good to see nothing changes."

Frank nods. "I bought him a motorized chair for Christmas. He refuses to even look at it." I scowl at Slyvester from afar. He's lucky for the years and good health that separate the siblings; without it, he'd be in a home. 

"Come on, kid. Let's go socialize." 

I groan but follow obediently. For the next hour, I hug and kiss complete strangers with whom I share a modicum of genetic material. Laughing, smiling, and sharing useless life advice seems to get me through the vast majority until I walk straight into the path of my least favorite cousin, and every exit strategy I'd rehearsed fails. 

"Fran," my voice reaches a pitch better suited to dogs. "How are you?"

"Ah-mazing. Clarke made partner, and we're buying into a gated estate. Honestly, I can't believe I've achieved so much by 26; it's surreal.." she goes on while I scan the lakeside for Darren, finally spotting him by the picnic tables with dad. Both wear evil smiles as they watch on. Traitors. "...daddy says it's the perfect investment-" 

I cut her off. "Did you bring Prince this year?" I hide a smirk at the lines creasing her forehead. She despises her husband's monster of a Grane Dane. I can't blame her. He's on par with my nephews. When Prince was a puppy, he sat at our feet while we ate lunch on picnic day. It was adorable until nature called, and he answered, beneath the table, on Fran's shoes. Prince took the award that year. 

"Clarke's walking him." She sniffed, spotting Aunt Celia and abruptly leaving. My gaze finds Clarke and Prince watching the ducks dive for bugs and other fortunate creatures that don't have to attend my family's picnic.  

My mother rings the lunch bell, and we descend upon the double row of gingham spread tables, casserole dishes, and baking trays anchoring the cloths in the now steady breeze. I kiss mom on the cheek and take a seat; no need to say much more when she's called me twice a day, every day this week. 

My father's mother eases down beside me, and I'm sure I hear her bones creak in time with her pacemaker. 

"Hi Nanna Dawn, how have you been?" I enunciate.

"Huh?" she yells, her hearing aid whistling as she jostles it. I grind my teeth while the noise subsides, opting for a small wave instead. She just narrows her eyes and turns back to the spread.

"Thank you for coming, everyone," Helen stands. Her beaming smile dulls my trepidation, and I remember again why I came. "It's so good to have another year together. Please, dig in."

Lids, wrappers, and dish tops come away, and an array of smells meet me, some divine, others questionable. I quickly catch my mother's eye, leaning over to whisper. 

"Where are the plates?" Her skin instantly leaches of color, her eyes wide and panicked. I quickly become her voice. 

"Ah, who was on plates?" 

My mother starts to tremble. "Me." 

Aunt Celia swoops to her side. "Don't panic. I brought mountains of serviettes."

"And we have plenty of leftover cups." Darren offers. Dad moves to console my wreck of a mother while the family begins ladling casserole into paper cups and anything drip-prof onto serviettes. Lunch goes off without a hitch until Aunt Celia starts making the rounds with her Artichoke bake. The recipe that resurfaces every year without fail. I accept a cup full, rubbing my stomach gleefully as I join the queue of family members eagerly waiting their turn to dump their portion behind the oak or into a pile of duckweed. My number comes up as Darren subtly tips his head and strikes up a conversation with Aunt Celia about reclaimed wood. I barely make it out of my seat before Nanna Dawn's head shoots up, and her temporarily lucid focus zero's in on me. 

"Elly, why don't you find a nice man to settle down with?"

I reel back blinking, the cup of artichoke mush slipping in my grip. "Middle age women don't have too many options. I hope you're not being picky." Now we have the attention of every soul at the table. My cousin Fran smirks. "Dying alone and becoming a food source for cats sounds better than settling for the last guy you dated."

My mouth flies open, but I say nothing. Aaron wasn't that bad, though he did say 'game-changer' far too often and entirely out of context.

"Leave her be," Darren chimes in. "She'll settle when she's ready."

"Your biological clock is ticking, love." Aunt Celia adds another spoonful of artichoke to my cup, and I barely suppress a gag. 

"She's right, Elly. I'd like to see you in my wedding dress someday soon. I'm afraid it'll be eaten by moths by the time you're ready for it." My mother gives me that disappointed yet hopeful look, and suddenly I'm not sure if it's the artichoke causing my nausea. 

"My neighbor has a grandson about your age. He's into computers too. Role-play, Gretta calls it." Nanna Dawn scratches at her chin while I imagine attending Comicon with Gretta's mid-thirties, basement-dwelling grandson. I'm still reeling in my horror when Uncle Sylvester's raised, grating voice starts from behind the oak. 

"-get away and take that mess of sewerage with you!"

Clarke bolts from behind the gnarled trunk, empty cup in hand, as Sylvester hauls his wheelchair behind in jerky, pained movements. 

"Frank, they're trying to stink me out with that god-awful slop."

Uncle Frank's back goes impossibly straight as Aunt Celia slowly rises, her eyes narrowed at Clarke. Frozen mid-stride, green stained cup outstretched. 

"What-" Aunt Celia's words are lost to Prince's sudden barrage of barking before the dog launches at Clarke, snatching the cup from his hands and ripping it to pieces on the law. Clarke hollers a string of commands, each falling on deaf ears as the dog finishes with the cup and sniffs the air. His tail wags with a gleeful bark, then he makes a galloping beeline for the oak and the mess of casserole at its base. His leash flies like a whip behind him, slapping across Sylvester's wheels as the old man jerks his hands away. Then the chair is moving. Rolling. Downhill. My mother screams, and the trestle tables flip. Dishes and soda spill onto the grass as my entire family tries to rise as one and chase my crippled uncle into the Lake. I stand at the lake's edge, covered in an assortment of dip, cream cheese frosting, and what I hope is meatball sauce while my father and Frank duck-dive to retrieve the wheelchair. The owner of which dangles between Clarke and Darren, his stump flailing as he shrieks about his waterlogged 'good-shoe.' The chair finally surfaces, my mother and Aunt Celia hauling it onto the grass. They pick away the pondweed, trying to convince Uncle Sylvester of the seat covering's waterproof nature. Clarke and Darren do their best to heave a combative Sylvester onto the bank just as Prince appears. Tongue lolling, full of his share of Artichoke bake, he climbs onto Sylvester's dripping chair and answers nature's call. Again. 

Hysterical laughter burbles from me in waves. My breath is robbed while tears burn down my cheeks. I laugh until my legs give out, and I'm lying on my back in Centenary Lake Park. Beneath the white oak, in my family's picnic spot. The steady breeze tousels my hair and dries the tears on my cheeks, and I remember why I came.        

March 26, 2022 00:58

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Jerrie Jerrard
17:37 Mar 31, 2022

Wow, what a cast of characters you have created - well done! It certainly was a picnic that went wrong... but judging by the opening paragraph there was little chance of there being a lot right with it. Well done on a cavorting slapstick scene of a finish!


Kat. L Haywood
22:08 Mar 31, 2022

Thanks Jerrie. I'm certainly not lacking inspiration for mad family members.


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