The essay below is completely unfinished. But I don’t know when I will ever get back to it, so it’s time to post. I’ll note any updates at this location.
I have a magic picnic basket.
I know it is magical, because I was told of its powers when it was given to me — fifteen years ago, as a wedding gift. I’ve lost touch with the friend who gave it to us, but I think of her often. The note said that whenever we filled the basket with food and took it on a picnic it would magically transport us back to our wedding day. It has. For fifteen years, it has brought us back to an overcast June day and a picnic wedding.
But more than that, it reminds me of that friend. Betsy is a generation older than me. She was not the first adult to treat me as a peer, but somehow she was the first one with whom I felt entirely comfortable in such a relationship. Her example helped me define what it meant to be a productive member of society, how to stand up for what one believes and still get on with the neighbors. That was not a lesson that came naturally to a political active but socially awkward college sophomore. I never felt I idolized her, but I wanted to be like her in a way I never did with my own parents, who I love and respect greatly, or my father-in-law, whose gentle ways, firm beliefs, and contributions to the world around him make him an ideal role model. I’d known several priests with a demeanor like Betsy’s, but that always seemed to be part of the job and not the person. With Betsy, gentleness wrapped around a strong sense of purpose seems to be her very essence.
The basket is a plain reed basket, narrower at the top, with a green rim and handle and a design in green woven into each side. For no reason I can explain the simple design looks to me to be Native American. It was always easily able to hold lunch for two and could now — should we forgo the blanket — hold enough for our family of four.
It served its first picnic the day after the wedding. The honeymoon was scheduled eight weeks later; the day after the wedding was spent at a nearby park with the group of friends that had pulled together around our relationship. It was made up entirely of people of our own generation; I’m sure no one even considered inviting Betsy, who had anyway gone home. Now, when I’m closer to the age Betsy was then than to my own wedding age, it seems unfortunate; but really, at my age I would probably have to turn down such an invitation myself. I’m sure I’d have some responsibility to fulfill the next day. But this basket and two other wedding gift picnic baskets came along. I guess that when the wedding is itself a picnic, picnic baskets are a natural gift idea. The other two baskets have long disappeared. It doesn’t matter much; I don’t remember who they were from, and they certainly were not magical.
I met Betsy at my first Quaker Meeting. I’d grown up active in the Episcopal Church, and my first year of college had continued as a member. When I went home that summer and attended my first service back in my old church, everything was gone. The deep fulfillment I’d encountered in the service was just empty ritual. I decided to explore other religious possibilities when I returned to school. I did a lot of reading that summer to weed out the churches I wasn’t interested in trying, and two possibilities stood out as likely fits. I tried a Quaker Meeting first; it fit so well, I never felt any need to try the Unitarians. Betsy was at that first meeting. She was serving then as the Clerk of the Meeting, which meant that after the sole Quaker ritual — an hour of shared, expectant silence — she made whatever announcements were needed. The Clerk was the public face of the meeting. A communal group with no hierarchy, and little clear-cut organization, Quakers can seem almost anarchic. An effective Clerk can strongly bind the group together and find broad consensus where none seemed possible. I think part of my admiration for Betsy had to do with the accidental fact that I met her when she was Clerk. I’d never seen an organization that worked so smoothly, and to me, Betsy personified the bizarre but fascinating structure that is the Religious Society of Friends, aka the Quakers.
The basket doesn’t serve picnics any longer. It has aged too far. The fading green handle is askew and would probably fall off if we tried to carry ten pounds of picnic. For some years now it has served in a more menial role. It’s the recycling bin. It sits in the pantry next to the trash can and collects bottles, cans, milk jugs and whatever else we need to recycle. When we don’t let it overflow, I carry it outside and sort the recyclables into their separate bins. When we’ve let it get too full and can’t carry it out easily, I sit on the floor next to the basket and sort into paper bags. It’s then that I feel a twinge of guilt. This is not what the basket was meant for. This basket should be out in the sunshine. It’s not that I feel Betsy would object. She’d probably be happy that it helps serve a useful cause after it’s career of feeding the ants. But it doesn’t feel right. It’s a demotion and obscurely smells like neglect.
Perhaps my feeling is regret over the picnics not taken. There have been some, but far too few. And we never get less busy. Lately it’s been the four days each week of little league, two of dance, the recitals, the plays, the PTA. That’s just the kids. We also need to remember the turtle, guinea pig, rabbit, two cats, two dogs, twelve fish, and twenty-four horses on the property. And the business my wife runs. And my full-time job. There’s not too much time left for picnics. And yes, I’m on the town website committee, the Democratic Town Committee, and the Board of Education.
Betsy was on the Board of Education, too. Hers was a larger, more complex school system, almost certainly with larger, more complex problems. But still, it’s a Board of Education, a contribution to the children and to the whole community. When I discuss being on the board I mention my schoolteacher parents and my Superintendent father-in-law. But it’s Betsy I think about.
My basket probably won’t last much longer. There’s some mold in the bottom, and the handle is getting worse. One day, I’ll empty the basket into the bins, then drop it into a bin of its own. In the landfill, it will decompose quickly, providing fertilizer for new reeds, new baskets, new magical wedding gifts. It’ll be a terribly sad day, though, because I don’t know if I’ll be discarding the magic along with the basket, and I won’t know for sure until it’s far too late. You see, the magic is still there. I don’t have to take it to the park to return to the wedding day. I just need to hold the basket, to look at it, to absentmindedly discard a used olive jar into it.
There were other friends from the Quaker Meeting at the wedding too; I imagine they gave gifts as well, but none of them stand out. It’s funny what gifts I remember: the silverware from my in-laws, the green throw rug from Debbie, the waffle-maker and syrup from Elham, the knives from my kid brother, Mike, and from church-and-camping friends, a gigantic purple tent that served as our honeymoon suite. Still, no one but Betsy gave a magical gift.
I have a magic picnic basket. It conjures up memories of my wedding in a way nothing else can. I wonder, does everyone think of their own wedding as far different from the others they’ve been to? Mine seems decidedly non-traditional. A Quaker wedding involves no officiant. No one marries the couple; they marry each other. The exchange of vows is preceded by silence, followed by silence. The silence is broken by friends and family offering advice, memories, silly stories, just plain congratulations. There is no structure. It’s never your turn to speak unless you decide to stand up and break the silence. People are uncomfortable with this; it’s awkward to break a shared silence. Most Quaker meetings I attend are completely silent. Quakers are used to this, though. It is in shared silence that Quakers best hear the thoughts shared by the community. In a group of mostly non-Quakers, it could quickly become excruciating.
Betsy spoke first. I don’t remember what she said. I don’t remember what anyone said, really. But she stood up and made it clear that anyone who likes may break the silence. Her gentle manner made it clear that her words were simply extensions of the silence, silence made word, silence spoken aloud. Others spoke afterwards, hesitantly at first, then more rapidly, until after a while we could barely pause to hear the silence before the next person spoke. They made us laugh, made us cry, made us think. But Betsy made us listen. The only words I remember now, fifteen years on, were those of my father and those of one sister-in-law. But the tone I remember, and the emotions, and the interplay of seriousness and frivolity. That was the tone set by Betsy.
Memories of my own wedding remind me of others. I remember clearly the weddings of my wife’s brother and of two of her sisters, all what seem to me perfectly traditional weddings, but perhaps were enchanted to the couples involved. Both of my brothers had less traditional weddings. A church-going family, none of us married inside a church, nor indeed inside anywhere. Chuck and Julie’s backyard wedding, where there was actually a response to “speak now or forever hold your peace,” an impassioned and articulate response by Julie’s dog. Holly and Tom’s outdoor wedding where the best man was a woman and the maid of honor a man. As far as I know, all these marriages are still going strong.
Two weddings less fortunate stand out even more strongly. The first wedding Amy and I attended as a couple was a few years before we married. Kathy and Mike didn’t seem to have what it took to keep a marriage going, but how could we tell them that? There seemed no way to tell Kathy that we didn’t approve without losing her friendship, and we kept silent. The first wedding we attended as a married couple was between Ellen and John. We liked them both, but not the relationship between them. Again, we kept silent. Both marriages lasted some years before falling apart. I can’t help but wonder if they wouldn’t have been helped by a magic picnic basket.