Picnics with Aunt Kathryn
Several years ago, my Great Aunt Kathryn and I decided to start a tradition all our own. We decided to get together for a picnic one Sunday a month, agreeing that picnics help keep you young. Further agreeing that sharing our bounty, however small and simple, with Mother Nature, along with the ants and the bees via picnics, was a fine, selfless and virtuous tradition we could proudly champion.
There were, of course, occasional exceptions to that rule. There were those cold or rainy Sundays when we would giggle like little girls as we plopped the picnic basket down on Aunt Kathryn’s mahogany dining table in her oh-so-formal dining room, but it wasn’t quite the same without the ants and the bees.
Our tradition began the day we found our beloved old picnic basket, the one we always filled to brimming with treats we both love. Simple fare, like picnics are meant to be. But also a nod to the whimsical and fancy that Kathryn and I have always been prone to.
It was one of those fortuitous little accidents that started a chain of events. A fun and lovely journey with an undefined ending or estimated time of arrival.
I was visiting Aunt Kathryn in Savannah that day, and we were in one of those frou-frou antique shops that I love to browse in but where I’m rarely able to buy anything. The dumpy places on the roadside are much more my style and where I’m usually able to find a treasure I can afford – like dusty old white ironstone pitchers back before Martha Stewart and Country Living Magazine started displaying them on every surface from a window sill to a toilet tank.
When “The Basket,” as it became known, fell off a shelf, landing at my feet, it was love at first sight. I knew better than to let the shop owner know that I was already coveting this old thing – a faded old red wicker picnic basket.
The owner raced toward me squealing “Ooh, ooh, ooh. Is it hurt? Is it broken?” I wasn’t sure if she was concerned about the basket or my foot. All the while, she was waving her hands and fluttering her fingers like she was feeling moved by spirits usually encountered in a revival tent while I just stood there waiting to see what was going to happen next.
Aunt Kathryn nudged me from behind and whispered. “Do not say one word, sugar. Not one.”
When the shop owner stopped in front of us and finally stopped waving her hands and fluttering her fingers, she noticed my aunt.
“Oh. Kathryn. Um. How lovely to see you!”
“Where have you been keeping yourself, I haven’t seen you in the shop in just an age.”
Aunt Kathryn looked around, “Actually, I don’t believe I’ve been here before. Lovely things you have here, dear. But tell me, do things often come tumbling off the shelves barely missing giving your patrons a concussion?”
I could have sworn I heard a quiet little “tut-tut” from Kathryn as she continued looking around, never letting her eyes fall to the picnic basket on the floor between us.
Marguerite pulled her shoulders back, put her nose another inch in the air. “Certainly not. And that old picnic basket is light as a feather. It wouldn’t have even dented a hair on your head, Kathryn. Why it’s even in this shop, I have no idea. It’s just a cheap ol’ piece made overseas somewhere. And you know how those things are, no substance. Light as a feather. Here, I’ll get it out of your way.”
Kathryn gracefully leaned forward and snatched up that basket as quick as I could blink my eyes.
“Oh, here, Marguerite dear, I’ll take care of it for you. My grandson’s sister-in-law’s little girl would love to play with this. And you know, with it being so cheap and all, no need to worry when it falls apart the first day she tries to get her cats to take a nap in it. I’ll be more than happy to take it off your hands. How much?”
We watched Marguerite turn to stone in front of our very eyes. She knew she had been found out. This beauty was no cheap piece of nothing from somewhere overseas as she had described it
“Oh, why, good heavens, I couldn’t take your money for this old thing. I’ll just toss it in the trash can right over there.”
“Oh my no. I’m quite excited by the very thought of that adorable little girl tucking her kitties into this old thing. If you won’t accept my money, I’ll just toss it in the back of the car while Katy and I look around. You go along, Katy, take your time and look around. I’ll be right back.”
And that’s how we came to own our beautiful 19th century Heywood-Wakefield wicker picnic basket with metal hinges and peg nails, its original color faded to a soft warm red. The woven wicker in surprisingly fine shape. This old basket had been lovingly cared for. Score one for the home team. That would be me and Aunt Kathryn since there was no little girl with kittens belonging to Kathryn’s grandson’s sister-in-law. Indeed, not even a grandson.
My aunt had known Marguerite Harald Alberta Woolsey all her life and knew she was one of those women who would just rather tell a lie than tell the truth, and Aunt Katherine loved taking advantage of that little lifelong trait.
We immediately planned a picnic to take place the very next day.
And it was so much fun, we decided to work a monthly Sunday picnic into our busy schedules.
We now had the perfect reason, allowing no excuses, to get together once a month – for me to make the trip to Savannah from my home a couple hours away.
Picnics became a tradition for the two of us, and something we both looked forward to. Our phone conversations now included picnic menus and locations.
It was early on that Aunt Kathryn spoke up and made it clear that eating on paper plates, even for a picnic, was unacceptable. Not even acceptable to Mother Nature, the ants, or the bees.
She wanted china.
All these things would join the linen table cloth and napkins she was donating to the cause of a well-stocked picnic basket
With that in mind, Aunt Kathryn decided we needed to choose a china pattern. And a silver pattern. And, yes, a crystal pattern.
When I reminded her we weren’t planning a wedding, only outfitting an old picnic basket she did that “tut-tut” thing she does.
So, of course, we did it her way.
Which gave us the perfect excuse to start scouring antique and junk shops for the things we would keep stored in our basket.
Anyone who loves to antique or junk knows the hunt is part of the fun, and our hunt was a hoot.
When we had our first china-related disagreement over exactly which pattern we should choose, we agreed we would each pick out a piece, or two, of china to suit ourselves. One that appealed to us individually rather than as a collective.
As it turned out, we both chose Limoges luncheon plates. They were different patterns, but close enough in design that they made quite a lovely aesthetically pleasing mismatch. We both chose white with small pink flowers, Kathryn’s with a pink rose and white daisy border, mine with a random scattering of tiny pink roses. At some point, a slightly chipped Limoges creamer and sugar bowl of yet another pink and white floral pattern found residence in “The Basket.” As did a couple of teacups, small bowls, and one larger covered dish. We had a veritable mash-up of Limoges before we finally had to say “enough!” Or there’d be no room for food.
While hitting a few yard sales on a pretty spring Saturday, we both knew we’d found our perfect silverware which turned out not to be silver at all, but stainless. With the most darling little bumble bee embossed on the handles. Perfect! We swooped in and scooped up the few odds and ends available – enough that we both had our own fork and a spoon each, but would have to share a knife.
Our crystal needs were met when we stopped at an old falling down shack of a place on a back road between Savannah and Tybee Island. There was a sign stuck in the ground with “Old Stuff” and an arrow drawn on it pointing to the shack where an elderly couple were sitting in rockers on the front lawn. Both were smoking pipes, and both were dressed in well-worn overalls and work boots.
We introduced ourselves as we approached and were offered our choice of drinks from an old Coca-Cola cooler and a bit of tobacco in case we had pipes of our own. We passed on the tobacco, but took them up on their offer of a cold drink and sat of the steps for a visit.
By the time we left, we knew quite a bit about Henry and Harriett, and we had a few pieces of delicately etched antique Rose Point crystal by Cambridge. Henry and Harriett were quite well suited to their choice of livelihood in sales seeing as how we intended to buy two pieces of crystal and ended up with, well, never mind. A lot of crystal – some only slightly chipped. I still have quite a few pieces at my house, Aunt Katherine ended up with quite a few pieces, and friends and family who have admired it might arrive home with a piece of two. Still not sure how that happened. But. It’s a lovely, lovely pattern, and because we had so much to choose from, the pieces that resided in “The Basket: were on rotation
I arrived at the spot chosen for our picnic - a serene spot in Bonaventure Cemetery, on a bluff overlooking the Wilmington River. Bonaventure is hauntingly beautiful, and if you’re one who enjoys the mysteries and peacefulness of a walk through a cemetery, this is one not to be missed. If you read John Berendt’s book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” you’ve seen one of the Bonaventure statues - the “Bird Girl” which was featured on the book cover. It’s no longer there, however, due to over-zealous visitors who perhaps weren’t as respectful to “Bird Girl” as they could have been. She now resides in Savannah’s Telfair Museum.
As I put down our linen tablecloth, our much loved, long used picnic finery along with today’s repast of country pâté and crusty French bread, plump strawberries, a salad of crunchy fresh lettuces topped with slices of cucumber, mushrooms and local tomatoes, I noticed a line of ants headed our way, and a few bees hovering around the azaleas.
I poured some of Aunt Kathryn’s favorite champagne, Krug Grande Cuvée, into our glasses and leaned back on my elbows, enjoying the quiet laced with birdsong.
“Yes, Aunt Kathryn, I know, I know. I did splurge on the champagne. But, well, we couldn’t let your birthday go by without a bit of celebration. I mean, I think your old pal Conrad Aiken started a Bonaventure tradition of drinking with the dearly departed by having his headstone constructed as a bench, declaring it to be a place for his friends to sit and enjoy a martini while conversing with his spirit, right? Do you suppose he didn’t like champagne? Heaven forbid. Well, with apologies to Mr. Aiken, we’ll forgo the martini and enjoy the Krug, what say?
After wiping away a few errant tears, I raised my glass to the headstone that read “Kathryn, a woman who loved picnics. She always done the best she could, and lived her life with enormous joy. Much loved and greatly missed.”
Then, as I felt a soft breeze whispering in my ear I got up, whispered, “I love you too, Aunt Kathryn,” and walked away, leaving behind “The Basket” and all the treasures it had held safely for so many years. Leaving the now threadbare tablecloth and all that rested on it. All to be shared with Mother Nature, the ants and the bees. As it should be.