PAGES PENNED IN PANDEMIC is a collective that brings together poetry, short stories, flash fiction, essays, and more-tangible reminders that something can always be made out of nothing, that transforming the tribulations and trials of the everyday into art is not only enough, it’s everything. All earnings from the print collective go to 826 National, an organization which benefits young writers aged 6-18. (Authors donated their works.) You can buy the book here
THE PICNIC TABLE By ELIZABETH REED
January 25, 2021
After we bought our first and only house in 1997, my husband, Uli, and I had no discretionary income for deck furniture. But my parents did. When they upgraded their deck furniture and ditched their brown picnic set, we took it. My father had added an extra board on each side, widening the space for platters of food between the dishes. Growing up in a Portuguese household, food was the center of any gathering. And there had to be a lot of it.
The color brown was never my favorite, especially as a backdrop for a food. Uli sanded the table and benches. Three-month-old Annierose watched from her infant seat as I primed everything in white, then painted each plank a different color. It was a simple color scheme, a reflection of simpler times—our first home and our first baby. The benches weren’t super comfortable, but they sat two or twelve people and could be pushed aside to make room for babies’ highchairs and toddlers’ Trip Trapp chairs. With two stand-alone patio umbrellas, everyone sat in the shade instead of wriggling around an umbrella impaled in the center of the table.
When the old set rotted beyond repair, we considered buying a comfortable deck set with cushioned chairs, but those deck sets didn’t stretch to fit as many people as possible at the table. So we hired a handyman. He confirmed the measurements three times since the table width was wider than normal. We assured him that yes, the dimensions were correct. He said he’d reinforce the crossed legs to hold the extra weight. He delivered the table a few weeks later, unpainted as we had requested. It was perfect, except for one detail. It weighed four times more than our original table. I have no inkling of its poundage, but I can tell you that it takes three able-bodied men to lift it up and over the ten narrow steps with two ninety-degree angles that lead to our deck. The ascent of our table to the deck in the spring and its descent to the garage in the fall has become a ritual our neighbors joke about. They’ve asked us to call for help ahead of time.
Uli primed the new table and benches. The kids and I chose two planks each to paint. Daniel painted a brontosaurus with mountains, a lake lined with green grass, a tree in full bloom—everything his beloved vegetarian dinosaur might want. Our daughter was all about bumblebees and ladybugs, a reminder of the Halloween costumes she and her cousin once wore as toddlers. Me? I wanted the sun. I captured it in the center of the table, ringed with our names. The rays extended across the boards in zig zags and circles and waves, like all the shapes our lives have taken. I dotted, striped, and swirled bright colors onto and around the rays.
Our table has been the center of spring, summer and autumn meals with my husband’s German family and my Portuguese family. We have toasted wine glasses with neighbors, friends and colleagues from England, France, Austria, Canada, China, India, Trinidad, and the U.S. of course, exchanging customs, politics and culture. My ninety-year-old father taught our next-door neighbor, who loves Portuguese food, how to debone a sardine in less than a minute. For Annierose’s tenth birthday we filled old film canisters with Alka-Seltzer and water and watched them explode from our table, transformed into a countertop in Hogwarts’ Magic of the Dark Arts lab. Fourteen children-penguins waddled around the table, now set up as an ice floe, and launched fake Styrofoam snowballs for Daniel’s sixth birthday party. We dragged the heavy table to one or the other side of our deck to make room for family buffets, neighborhood bar-be-ques and graduation brunches. One summer, Uli and I watched, mouths agape, as a muscular roofer who needed more space on our deck for his ladder, lifted the table over his shoulder and carried it down the stairs as if it were a sack of potatoes.
Over the years the designs faded and chipped past the possibility of touch ups. Last summer, Uli sanded the table and benches again. He ground off the paint until it was a blank slate. I painted everything white. But it was a busy summer. The kids and I never did get around to painting any designs. This pandemic summer turned out to be perfect for this activity. Because of social distancing we didn’t use the picnic set. It was in the garage surrounded by cans of paint. The table was, once again, a canvas for us to record whatever we wanted. I painted the sun again, a dandelion yellow rimmed with green triangles and multi-colored rays. I included some music notes for the pianist I am. I drew the flowers that could have grown in our garden, if those cute but ravenous rabbits and the pesky woodchuck hadn’t devoured them. Unlike this pandemic, I had control over the design and colors. Choosing colors connected me to other worlds—turquoise for the beaches I love but were closed this summer, blue for the skies above the Alps we didn’t climb.
Annierose came out to visit in the summer and painted her two planks. Her loyalties have changed from butterflies and ladybugs to cats. She sketched and painted three feline poses. The cats aren’t socially distanced from one another but that’s okay. For hours at a time, Annierose stood at that table, ignoring the joint pain that juvenile arthritis has inflicted on her since the age of three. I watched her in the garage, focused, relaxed and when maskless, smiling occasionally.
Daniel waited until two days before leaving for college to paint his side, a mirror of the waiting this pandemic has enforced: waiting in a drive-by car line to pick up items from his locker and his cap and gown for pictures at home, waiting for speakers with his masked friends at anti-racism marches, waiting to see if the university campus would open, waiting to move onto campus in the third week of staggered arrivals. He could have painted an unrented prom tux, a lone mortar board thrown into the air, empty recital chairs. Instead he painted what he sees in the future—the dog, any dog, that he’s wanted for years.
The rites of passage that would normally enrich the present and map the future vanished. Rational people, which I consider myself to be, are wearing masks but not rose-colored glasses. All we can see is what is in front of us, one brush stroke at a time.
As I paint, I remember the long summer nights around the table with friends, roaring laughter, endless toasts, Sunday morning breakfasts with the five different types of pancakes Uli makes. I can’t see the future, but I must believe these gatherings will happen again. I must believe that our country will recover. I must believe that despite the dark challenges of this year, we will have brighter days, weeks, months and years.
I’m painting that tenacity into every swirl. I’m painting glory with every bright color I choose. I’m painting unfettered movement into every design I create. And I’m painting joy and hope for a new future into the sun, a sun that I believe will outshine anything.