May 16, 2019

It All Started with the Family Picnic

Regular readers may recall that I use my local library a lot, and the benefit I appreciate the most is being able to request a book or movie from any of the locations within my regional library system.  When you live in a small, rural town with a tiny little library, the ability to request an inter-library loan makes a huge difference in the amount and type of material available to you.  Of course, the larger the library system, the more people who can request books so, sometimes, I end up waiting weeks or even months for something especially popular.  But patience is a virtue and my patience was once again rewarded when I was finally notified that the most recent edition of “100 Parks, 5,000 Ideas” had been delivered to my local library for me.

The book is a beautiful one, thick with ideas and enticing photographs, but what struck me and stayed with me was author Joe Yogerst’s very first sentence in the book’s introduction:  “I cannot imagine my life without parks.”  It actually stopped me in my tracks because I realized at that moment that the sentiment he voiced applied to my own life, as well.  In giving it more thought, I realized that, for me, it all began with the Family Picnic.

My Mom came from a big Italian family that remained close and got together on a regular basis.  The house in which I grew up was a magnet of sorts, attracting family members and friends, also on a regular basis.  My Mom loved the company and there was always a hot cup of coffee, a cold glass of home-brewed iced tea and, more often than not, a home baked treat just waiting to be shared with guests.  Mom’s family got together for weddings (happily) and funerals (sadly), Christmas night dinner (for many years) and, best of all, the Family Picnic (a highly anticipated event).  I don’t know the details as to when the Family Picnic tradition began, but I do remember the excitement it generated from the time I was a small child.  The Picnic (note the capital letter, a sign of reverence), was always held on a summer day in the picnic area of a State Park about an hour from our home, within a stone’s throw from the Park’s beach.  What made the Picnic so exciting was the fact that it began at 8:00 a.m. and sometimes even earlier.  So, we would get up before dawn, pack our picnic supplies (all that food!) and be on the road with one of my aunts or cousins before most folks had taken the first sip of their morning coffee that weekend.  The Park, which was situated on a small lake, required quite the trek from the unloading area to the picnic tables (d*mn that hill!), but every single relative capable of doing so pitched in to unload everyone’s car and set up “our” picnic table.  You see, that’s why we got there so early – our family wanted to be sure to capture our favorite spot and we did, probably 99.9% of the time.  It was in the shade, within sight of the beach, near a water fountain, not far from the restrooms and just a short walk from the playground.

Breakfast was usually bacon, eggs, coffee and juice, and I remember some years the mornings were so cool we’d all be gathered around the charcoal grill with beach towels around our shoulders, jostling each other to get as close to the warmth of the fire as possible.  Lunch was a traditional picnic lunch – hot dogs, hamburgers, Mom’s baked beans, Aunt Jennie’s potato salad, watermelon and desserts – and we often stayed through late afternoon.  When it was time to clean up and say good-bye to the lake, it was all hands on deck.  The food and wet beach towels were packed away and, with numerous treks back to the loading area (d*mn that hill!), everyone’s car was packed up in short order.  I’m sure many a cousin fell asleep in the back seat on the way home.

As a kid, I loved walking the hiking trail along the lake, playing on the beach and swimming with my cousins but, truth be told, I often hung around with the adults seated at the small cluster of picnic tables, while they were prepping the next course of food and telling family stories.  (When it’s an Italian family, there’s always too much food involved.)  Because the only time I remember going to that Park as a child was for the Family Picnic, it was a magical place to me.  The lake reflected not only the natural beauty of the hills and forests around us, but the love and traditions shared by my Mom’s family, too.

In later years, that State Park became important to me for another reason – it was the beach to which my group of friends would set out for a day of fun, dragging our coolers and our beach towels, our radios and our sunblock.  All we needed was one high school friend with a driver’s license and access to the family car for the day and we were all set.  We didn’t think life could get any better.

Around that time, I met the guy who would become my husband of nearly 40 years and counting.  Coincidentally, Alan’s family often visited that same State Park, bringing with them their small Sunfish sailboat and enjoying yet another facet of the lake.  When Alan and I were planning a future together, our talk turned to traveling – something that neither of our families did unless it was to visit relatives.  And so began a lifetime of dreaming and of doing.  We fell in love with the National Park system on our honeymoon in the late 70’s, a love affair which hasn’t dimmed in the least.  In fact, the more State and National Parks we visit, the more we know that these are the adventures that bring out our happiest selves, that always refresh our souls and that make us whole again.

In a way, it feels like I’ve come full circle.  As a child, I enjoyed the beautiful spaces of the State Park my Mom’s family chose as the place to affirm the importance of fun and family.  As kids, our son and daughter were just as excited when the day of the Family Picnic arrived as I was when I was young.  I learned through my Mom’s family that our Parks were truly special places, and Alan and I have tried to pass that lesson down to our kids, Ryan and Kyra.  I hope our family’s love affair with our State and National Parks is never ending, that it flows through the generations like the love and laughter that were always present at our family gatherings, that it inspires good stewardship of our public lands, forms the basis of countless happy memories and prompts the telling of family stories that will be recounted by generations to come.  "I cannot imagine my life without parks."


  1. Someone once said, "Memories are like antiques; the older they are, the more valuable they become." Yours constitute a veritable treasure house, I would say. I hope we can hold on to the good memories as long as possible. Nice read, Mary.

    1. Thanks, Mike, I'm glad you enjoyed it. I love that quote - it's so true!

  2. I also am blessed with lots of memories of our family enjoying state and national parks. They were a huge part of my childhood and remain a favorite destination for my husband and me. (I love libraries too!)

    1. Lucky us, Janis! And great minds think alike!


Comments are encouraged and appreciated, so please do join the conversation!