Over the last few days, conversation in our home has included Memorial Day plans, which is largely pointless because we always go to Pap Paps, the mobile home and cottage along the Juniata River which was where my wife grew up, and was home to our boys' Pap Pap and Gramma. Such conversation always sparks memories of childhood Memorial Day activities, which were slightly less predictable. An ensemble of relatives and we would visit one of several picnic venues that seemed to be on a rotating list. Memorial Days, July 4ths, Labor Days, and Grandpa Senft's birthday (actually my great grandfather) we would visit either Pinchot Park, Pigeon Hills Park, sometimes Laurel Lake (if someone on the planning committee was feeling frisky-it was further away, less familiar, and therefore a bit adventurous for us), or, once per year, the home of one of the ensemble members. At this point in the recollection, the positive endorphins' flow ceases as a dark, suppressed, sub-chapter of childhood surfaces-my memories of visits to Uncle Neil and Aunt Dot's home.
The other members of the extended family that made up the picnic entourage were normal, in a Pennsylvania Dutchified, slightly nosy, Lutheran way. But Uncle Neil was, I was firmly convinced as a child, not from Earth. And there were plenty of clues that I was right. For one thing, his appearance. I only saw him 4 times a year, but I knew what he was going to be wearing before we actually got there. He had a collared, pullover, V-neck shirt that looked like aluminum foil with a red and olive green plaid pattern which he always wore, and always paired with porch-paint gray Sans-a-Belt shorts, the shirt smartly tucked in, of course. He wore calf-high white socks and black wing-tip shoes. I always thought the shirt looked like it was cut not from fabric, but from Christmas wrapping paper that was too gaudy for Lutherans. The only variable in his outfit was his hat. He always wore a hat when outdoors, which was, I suspect, only those 4 picnic occasions. He wore a toupee that looked like a squirrel pelt that was ironed and velcroed to his head, so I guess the variety of hats were an attempt to fool us regarding his hairpiece. He fooled no one. As a kid, I typically couldn't spot artificial hair, but my grandmother would whisper in my ear-''that man's wearing a wig...''. No need for such an alert with Uncle Neil. I sometimes noticed other nearby picnickers gawk alarmingly at Uncle Neil, and it seemed even passing wildlife-robins, chipmunks, grasshoppers paused to stare. Those onlookers surely concluded, as I did, this must be an extraterrestrial. Just examine the facts: that shirt was not sold in any store on this planet. Uncle Neil's name was actually Cornelius Louis Booth. He was married to my Mom's older sister Dorothy, who not only was married to him, but seemed to like him. They had no children, which further fueled my suspicions of his secret origins, since surely an earthling and an alien could not reproduce. It occurs to me just now, that they drove a Galaxy 500! Aha! (he always said the name of their cars wrong-the Galaxy 500 was his ''500 Galaxy''. Their next car was a Ford LTD he always called his LDT. They later got a Ford Ranger pickup he called a Rancher.) I felt some relief in knowing he was an uncle by marriage, and therefore shared no genetic material. Uncle Neil had no visible means of support. He was, supposedly, retired from a civilian job at Fort Meade where he and Aunt Dot met. I was convinced that was a convenient cover story for the stipend he received from his home planet, and Aunt Dot was complicit.
At these picnics, in addition to the charcoal lighter flavored burgers and hot dogs (''doggies'' as Mama called them), the menu included each lady's signature summer dish. My Mom brought deviled eggs, Aunt Winnie brought sauerkraut for the doggies, Mama made pies, usually from things she either grew or picked or both-grape, apple, or sour cherry. (in the dialect of Hanover, Pa ''sour'' rhymes with car and far, not flower or tower. Even though I've mostly rejected that dialect, pronouncing ''sour cherry'' correctly sounds wrong) Aunt Dot always brought a salad made from macaroni, peas, Spam cubes, and hunks of Velveeta. I had to take some, and Mom would kick me under the table until I ate some and told Aunt Dot how good it was, which, of course encouraged her to bring a bigger bowl next time. Uncle Neil would smile smuggly, basking in the envy of those without his access to such culinary mastery.
While Neil and Dot added a touch of background nausea to these get togethers, it was manageable since I could escape them by either looking for snakes in the woods, or swimming in the turtle soup colored water at Pinchot or Laurel Lake while unseen fish nibbled at my toes. But the worst news I could hear during the summer, except someone reminding me school started in X number of days, was that it was Uncle Neil and Aunt Dot's turn to host the upcoming picnic. There was no escape. I was too young to stay home alone and my Mom saw through feigned, sudden illness. It was a sentence without possibility of parole. I only actually remember being at their home 3 times, but that was traumatic enough to scar for life.
They lived in a one story, stone house with a carport on a rural road near Dover. As important as his snappy appearance apparently was to Uncle Neil, that concern did not extend to their home. To say it was unkempt would be like calling the Susquehanna damp. The carport hadn't held, or had room for a car in years. It was piled and stuffed with cardboard boxes; a rusty, long inoperable Gravely riding mower; a tilted, sagging, mauve recliner that smelled of cat pee; bundles of mildewed newspapers; and, probably, missing children.Their lawn was rarely, and poorly mowed. The largest, squarest areas showed evidence of having been cut at some time, but near the house or around trees and bushes the grass was as high as the window sills. Out back there was a stagnant, ''8'' shaped, brick lined, hole they called the goldfish pond, which may have held goldfish but it was impossible to tell since the surface was coated in a green mass that looked like overcooked spinach. There was a full sized, completely rust covered tractor, in roughly the middle of the yard, exactly where it stopped, long, long ago. I imagined that, like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz, it was trudging through the yard when it suddenly became paralyzed from rust. It was there before I was born, according to Mom, and was there when Uncle Neil passed on 10 or 12 years after our last picnic there. The inside of the Booth home was similarly inviting. It smelled like vinegar all the time, in every room, even in the basement. Their kitchen table was covered-I mean completely covered-with cereal boxes, magazines, mail, empty jars, shoes, and plates with unrecognizable dried up food, as if a staging area for the kitchen sink. I have a clear memory of their bathroom, too, which was atypically clean and orderly, and smelled not like vinegar, but like the round box of powder on the toilet tank lid. It was the décor of the bathroom that I remember, though. The walls, from floor to half height were tiled in pink and black glossy tile, there were 2 sinks, pink, and a shiny black statue of a panther between the sinks. It was like a tacky, art deco refuge, and I would have loved to sit in there until it was time to leave, but that was not an option. It was, after all, a picnic, and there was Dot's Spam salad to enjoy!
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