In my family, going on a picnic was no casual affair. The invasion of Normandy required less planning than an Italian family picnic. It began by deciding where to go. At first it was Alley Pond park, on the Queens border; just a short ride from Brooklyn. In later years, after some of the family moved to Long Island, it was Belmont State park in Suffolk County, an eternity away. Did they speak English in this place? Could we ever find our way home? To quote Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz: "Toto, I've got a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore".
For some reason we usually made these excursions on Sundays. In today's traffic one can learn to speak a foreign language while traveling from Brooklyn to Long Island on a Sunday, but in the Fifties, it wasn't that bad yet. There was traffic though, and to keep our caravan of cars together, we employed the "white hanky" gambit. The lead car (Uncle Nick more often than not) would tie a white handkerchief to the "aerial" (we never called them antennas) so that every trailing car could see the white hanky and follow, even in traffic. Of course, the white hanky was used by other caravans too, a fact that clearly diminished its effectiveness.
Once at the park, the next step was picnic table selection. Sometimes a family member would go early and try to save a group of tables, but in New York picnic grounds, where tables were scarce, this could lead to a trip to the Emergency Room. The next step was to fetch the water for the pasta. (Pasta you say, at a barbecue! Hey, we were Italian and it was Sunday. There is no wiggle room here.) The water would take a long time to boil on the outdoor stoves, so we usually arrived very early. Sometimes we would bring a pan of cooked Lasagna that only had to be heated and eaten. (We usually had a barbecue after our pasta and meatballs, out of respect for the local customs).
While dinner was cooking we had the games. Softball, if we could keep the men out of their nap chairs and get to the field early enough. Maybe a row on the lake, which was always a treat. Then there was the great Italian game of boccie, or sometimes a set of horseshoes would be produced. One of the reasons these games were such fun is that the adults participated along with the kids. We got to see their more playful sides, but make no mistake, the rules were enforced. Cousin Jimmy was very competitive, and he liked to win. That meant every close call in boccie brought out the ruler for a measurement! It also involved a lot of screaming, but of course, being Italians, we didn't notice.
Later in the day, the men would usually get their naps, and the women and children would play cards. In the days before "Game Boy" and text messaging, playing cards was a popular pastime that today is greatly underrated as a social activity. The espresso coffee and Italian pastry came last. The Lagonigros, Bivonas, and Pantalenos were the core families for "Operation Picnic" but often family friends would tag along. As a testament to how much fun was had, we have some wonderful old black and white photos taken with our trusty Kodak "Brownie Camera". Sadly many more photos were lost. (Not our family pictured at left, but that's pretty much how we looked.)
I think we took these family outings for granted because we all lived within blocks of each other and the logistics were so simple. Now our family is scattered all over. A few years back, Cousin Bill and his family hosted a family reunion picnic in New Jersey, and it was a huge success. Cousins who rarely got to see each other had a chance to connect and catch up. It reminded me of just how lucky we were back then to have our family so concentrated in a small geographic area. We grew up with our cousins, aunts and uncles and saw them often. Today we have the memories, and keep in touch by e-mail. Not the same.
(Originally published 11/1/2008.)
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