Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Autumn picnic

Early last week during the unseasonably warm weather, Holly and I took a late-afternoon walk. We passed a field near our house, and Holly noticed that a very tall oak tree had toppled over from the woods edging the field and was now lying almost all the way across it.

As she looked at it, it wasn’t so much like an idea formed in her head as like a snapshot popped into her brain. “I would like to have a picnic there with Samantha,” she announced.

Holly has several close friends, and she doesn’t usually plan picnics, so why this particular conflation of details – a picnic, Samantha – I can’t explain. I also suspected that by the next day, or at least once the warm weather broke, she’d forget about the plan.

But she didn’t. Two days later, she was still asking me if I’d emailed Samantha’s mother yet to invite the two of them on a picnic. So I sent the email, and they graciously accepted, and then it was menu-planning time.

Apparently to Holly, planning (and hosting) a picnic means drawing up a complicated menu that I am then expected to execute. Tea sandwiches – three or four varieties. Fruit salad (which would have to be made the morning of the picnic, for the sake of freshness). Apple crisp for dessert, Holly requested: warm from the oven.

I managed to make a few modifications. Two kinds of tea sandwiches rather than three. Sliced banana bread, which we happened to have in the freezer just waiting for an occasion. And how about those fancy chocolates I received for my birthday last week in place of the freshly baked apple crisp? (The fact that I was willing to break out my secret stash of fancy chocolates attests to just how much I didn’t want to have to worry about making an apple crisp.)

Holly was amenable, and I found little jobs for her to do as I prepared the food that Saturday morning: she fetched plastic plates and napkins from the paper goods closet, and then cleaned out the wagon, which we would need to transport our bounty to the field.

When we got there, everything seemed to unfold just as Holly pictured it. We shook out our picnic blanket, and the moms sat in the sun chatting (and munching on the sliced apples and brie that our guests had contributed to the meal) while Holly and Samantha examined the tree branches and jotted down their observations in small spiral notebooks Holly had brought along specifically for this purpose. (It turned out she had chosen the location because she recognized that when a tall tree falls down, it gives you a rare opportunity to examine what’s in those high branches that you can never see in a standing tree.) After we ate our tea sandwiches and drank our lemonade, Holly pulled out the songbook she’d brought along and sang a couple of songs she wrote last week. Samantha was a great sport: she seemed perfectly content with the remarkably micro-choreographed event Holly had planned.

For the two moms, it was a great chance to catch up; we’d both been busy all fall and hadn’t seen much of each other. For the girls, it appeared to be a happy fall afternoon, though the weather had turned a lot cooler since Holly first conceived of the plan, and we were wearing hats, gloves and fleece jackets. Mostly, Holly seemed pleased that the plan had unfolded just the way she pictured it.

But she also seemed unsurprised. She invited Samantha on a picnic; Samantha accepted. She brought notebooks for writing observations; observations were duly made. She gave me a picnic menu; I prepared the food. It’s nice to be eight years old and able to control an event to that degree, and I suppose it worked mostly because I went along so willingly. But this was a rare case where I was happy to take orders from my child. Holly had a plan and with help from me was able to make it come to fruition. The results were pleasing to everyone.

Usually, life is a lot more complicated. Parties don’t work out exactly as you expect; menus don’t turn out just as you imagine they will; the weather changes in unpredictable ways. But not this time. This time everything worked out just as Holly planned. I’m not sure if she realizes how rare that is, but I know it was a happy day for her, and I can only hope she’ll remember how happy she was on this day at some point in the future when plans turn out to be not quite always so easy to enact.

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