Dad parked in a shady lot at the bottom of a small hill. My brother, sister, mother and I joined him in hauling a picnic basket, cooler and baseball gear up to the park’s pavilion. We always arrived late and had to thread past crowded tables laden with food to find an open spot. Potato salad and baked bean dishes huddled side by side. Paprika-dusted deviled eggs sweated inside Tupperware containers. Occasional bowls of three bean salad added color accents to the spread. Hot dogs and hamburger patties hissed on a nearby grill, and the smoke rising from the briquettes smelled of fat and charred meat.
Aunts Katy, Deannie, and Rose had staked out their spot on the sunny side. They lay tanning on their chaise lounges, squinted shrewdly at less favored aunts and uncles and made tight lipped observations. Uncle Carl had grown a stringy beard that made him look like a billy goat. Aunt Carol had put on weight, and the lime green horizontal stripes on her knit wear top didn’t do much to hide it. One cousin had stretched out weedy and lean and sported a laughable upper lip fuzz that one day might become a mustache. Another cuz had poured herself into ultra tight jeans and was asking for trouble.
The uncles sat at a table drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and cigars, playing poker. They slapped cards down when they made a play, carefully scooped dimes and quarters into their piles when they won, and taunted the biggest losers. They mostly ignored the kids, but Uncle Paul gave me an unkind glare as I passed by. He disliked my mother, and his animosity extended to her brood.
The aunts gathered wandering children and herded them to their seats. An uncle served up platters of hamburgers and dogs. The men got another beer or two to wash down their meals. Folks wandered up and down sampling food from the communal spread. I stayed away from Aunt Jody’s potato salad. She put in too much mustard. A lake of bacon grease floated on top of Aunt Katy’s bake beans. A green salad had unidentifiable, smelly white chunks crumbled over the top. I stuck to food Mom had made.
Mom let us drink soda pop at summer reunions, and I sat down with a can of grape. The sweet acidity clashed with greasy chips, beans and burger making my stomach churn half way through the meal. I felt like I’d eaten a watermelon all by myself.
The men grabbed more beers, baseball bats and balls after the feast ended. They headed downhill from the pavilion to a softball diamond. The women stayed back to clean up and complain about their husbands. The kids followed after their dads and stood near the backstop to await team assignments. The uncles divvied up the kids bam-bam-bam then told us the most important rule of all: if a batted ball knocked over a beer bottle, the hitter was out.
Uncle Carl like to chatter at the kids when they came up to bat. He yelled, “You swing like an old washerwoman” after I took a cut and fouled off a pitch. I managed to punch a dribbler up the middle, but Uncle Jerry scooped it up and threw me out. Uncle Carl razzed me as I trotted back to the sideline. “You got lead in your pants!”
Older Cousin Mike slashed a burner to shortstop. Carl made an awkward stab at the ball and looked more interested in shielding himself than catching the grounder. Uncle glared at me when I yelled “No glove!” “Error!” I jeered as he returned to his position. Dad gave me a sharp look. I shut up.
Uncle Carl came up to bat the next inning. Dad’s pitch arced high and came straight down over the plate. Carl flailed at it. He lunged at the second, struck out on the third. Only little kids struck out hitting slow pitch. Dad turned and gave me a warning look while Carl retreated. I didn’t say anything as Uncle had already demonstrated he was the one who swung like a washerwoman.
My team lost. A beer-bottle-out was made. I caught a fly ball in left field but never got on base. We trudged hot and tired back up the hill. The kids hit the coolers for sodas and raided the snack table for chips and pretzels. Hunks of sliced watermelon waited on soggy paper plates.
The aunts and uncles ate, drank, talked and smoked as the sun dipped lower in the west. Mosquitos and fireflies appeared, and little kids chased flying, glowing specks in and out of the lengthening tree shadows.
We packed up and said our goodbyes. The air felt cool blowing into the back seat of our Dodge sedan as we drove home, and I wanted to doze. But every bump jolted the sodden lump in my belly.