My mom, a prolific writer, submitted this remembrance to NPR a few years back. When they called to arrange legal permission for its broadcast, they were so charmed by her soft southern accent that they asked her to read it aloud on the air. She would be 83 today. She would be delighted that you are reading her work, and I am too. Enjoy.
By Margaret-Ann Allison
The pungent aroma of baked ham curled out the kitchen window and wrapped around my head. I had spent the entire morning perched on a limb of the mango tree in our Fort Lauderdale back yard, reading a Nancy Drew mystery. Now the whirring of a mixer and clanking pots and pans briefly took my mind off the mosquito droning in my ear. The day of the big picnic had finally arrived.
All summer I had looked forward to the picnic my parents had planned with my aunt and uncle. I had such fun with my cousins when we visited at their farm, but this time they would be in my territory — the beach.
Mama was a good cook and she loved preparing fancy menus for special occasions. In fact, the only thing she liked better was criticizing someone else. She was especially discriminating where in-laws were concerned. More than once it had been called to her attention that her sister-in-law (a well respected caterer) cooked “the best cakes this side of heaven.” Mama said, “Her cakes are too heavy and her icings taste of lard.” She shared her opinion with the Tuesday Church Circle group and knew it would reach the ears for which she she had intended it.
“Mama, I’m starving!” I called as I slid to the ground and headed toward the screened door of the back porch.
“If you’re hungry that means you’ll be ready to enjoy your meal when we get to the picnic.” Mama had been cooking for two days, and her time and temper were getting short.
“Don’t come in on my clean floors with your sandy feet and dirty clothes. Go wash off at the spigot and get ready to go. The chicken is almost done and soon as I ice the cake, we’ll leave.”
Daddy watched in silence as Mama stuffed egg halves with a creamy yellow mixture she extruded from a pastry bag and twirled into stars.
“Is the cooler full of ice and did you pack the cloth I put out? I won’t eat my dinner off those dirty wooden tables — be sure the lid is clamped tight on the tea pitcher or we will have tea sloshed all over the trunk when we get there. Will someone please answer that phone? I can’t do everything,” she said, as she covered the deviled eggs with wax wrap and began icing a large layer cake with coconut-and-seafoam icing.
As I passed the hallway I heard Daddy talking on the phone. “Well, we’re running a little late but we should be leaving in about twenty minutes. You go ahead and put your things on a table but save us one nearby. See you soon.”
“I was afraid of this,” came the wail from the kitchen. “We’ll arrive and your sister-in-law will have her gourmet feast spread out and she’ll stand there sneering at my offering. I should have baked some beans to go with the potato salad. I just know she’ll bring one of those seven-spice pound cakes she is so proud of.”
“It won’t matter what you bring if you don’t hurry,” Daddy sighed. “It will be too dark for anyone to see it.”
Finally the car was loaded, the gear stowed in the trunk, and as we backed out the drive, Mama said, “I feel like I did during exams when we were in college.”
The twenty-minute drive was made in total silence. I was joyously anticipating making sandcastles and forts with my four male cousins. Daddy must have been counting the number of trips he would have to make with the baskets of food, cooler chests, towels and chairs before he could finally sit and visit with his brother. I’m certain that Mama was mentally checking the long-thought-out menu she had worked on so hard. This was one time her in-laws would not outshine her! The ham (baked in a mixture of orange juice and honey) was perfect. The fried chicken had just the right shade of gold on the batter. Her deviled eggs and potato salad looked exactly like the picture in the magazine she had copied the recipe from, but the crowning touch would be her homemade coconut cake. She had cracked and ground the coconut meat herself to assure a fluffy freshness.
As our car pulled into the parking area, Mama’s worst fear was realized. My aunt was standing beside a table which was obscured from view by the crowd of relatives around it. “I’ll carry the cake,” Mama said, opening the car door for me, “and you take the tea pitcher. Your father can bring the big hamper.”
Mama held the cake in front of her as a warrior would his shield, and walked through the sand toward the tables. As the crowd parted, she looked confused — and then triumphant. There, sitting atop newspapers, was a large jar of peanut butter, a loaf of bread, a bag of chips, a jar of grape jelly, a sack of apples, a carton of Pepsi and a pitcher of tea.
Eyeing the coconut cake, my aunt said, “I hope you didn’t go to a lot of trouble. I’ve been so busy with my catering I haven’t had time to cook for my family.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” smiled Mama sweetly. “I’ve been busy too, so I just threw together a few things I had in the refrigerator.”
Mama never went on another picnic. “You just can’t improve on perfect,” she said.