The Family Picnic

Since ‘tis the season when families get together for barbeques, I thought I’d share a story that first appeared in Chicago Parent in August, 1992, Indy’s Child in July 1995, and online on

Ah, the annual family picnic. It’s the one day each year when every relative you never knew you had climbs out of his or her time capsule to play Catch with you.

It’s one of those occasions that sounds like it’ll be a lot of fun until you realize, as The Day of The Picnic draws nearer and nearer, just how much you have no idea who these people really are who have come to play Catch with you.

It’s funny, but after all of these years, I still don’t know, let’s say, about…99% of the people who come to our family picnic. For all I know, by some strange quirk in zoning laws, all the people who attend our picnic every year might really belong to a whole other family who always ends up having its picnic on the same day, at the same time and place as ours.

I know I should know these people. Perhaps I just don’t pay enough attention year after year when my mother drags Richard and me over to yet another woman with a bee-hive hairdo, sky-blue eye shadow, and neon orange lipstick and says, “Leslie, you remember Aunt Tootie, don’t you? She used to babysit for you when you were about this tall”, gesturing to her knee.

Aunt Tootie replies, “My! Look how you’ve grown”!

“I’m 34, now, Aunt Tootie”, I think to myself. “People change”.

Aunt Tootie continues, “Do you remember me? I sure remember you! You used to love running around the house naked”.

Richard’s eyebrows crest as he says, “Oh, really? Well, come on, Aunt Tootie. How about you and I go for a little walk so we can discuss this further”?

Now, I know a lot of you are thinking, “Then don’t go. Stay home. Say NO to bugs”!

And that’s a very good idea, unless, of course, it’s YOUR mother who organizes the family picnic. Then, you have to go. And you have to like it. And you have to say, “Yes! Let’s do this again next year”!

I know I should consider myself lucky. I know a lot of people who actually have to travel by car with three screaming, Gummy Bear-throwing children for days just to play Catch with people they don’t know.

But when I stop to think about it, because we both come from such large, extended families, Richard and I spend a lot of time attending functions for and with people we don’t know.

Our good friend Tom once invited us to a very swanky party that we had to miss because one of Richard’s third-cousins-twice-removed had invited us to his son’s Bar Mitzvah. Tom asked Richard exactly how he was related to this boy and after Richard had finished plodding through his family tree, Tom said, “Gee! In most normal families, you wouldn’t even know that person”.

Which brings me back to our family picnic. Unlike Richard’s family picnic, comprised of a whole other family I don’t know, ours has no organized games that supply fun for the entire family. We have games for the kids, but his family plays games such as the ever popular egg toss, and the even more popular “Mummy Mommy” game during which all the darling children in the family race to see who can be the first to wrap their parents up in toilet paper.

Though my family’s picnic lacks the oodles of fun those games provide, we have our own brand of picnic fun known as “The Chase Sisters Hall of Fame”. This game requires a keen eye and a shameless soul, which is why only my sister Beth and I can play it. In this game we award mental trophies to our relatives in such categories as “Best Fake Smile” and “Most Colorful Bermuda Shorts”.

And so, The Day of The Picnic has finally arrived, and as we prepare to leave for the big event I have a feeling that this year will be different. I am actually looking forward to it.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I have matured. Maybe it’s because I finally realize how lucky I am to be blessed with so many people who care enough about me that they come to play Catch with me each year. After all, I have many friends who have no family in the area, and always tell us how lucky we are to share such closeness with our families.

Or, maybe it’s that I saw Richard pack Family-sized bottles of Tylenol and Advil into our picnic basket. I have a feeling this year’s picnic will be lots of fun.

Note: Mom: it’s just a story I really do love our family picnic. It’s Beth who hates it.

Smelt Fest

According to my records, which, in reality, are stories told to me by old-timers who have been smelting for decades, smelt used to be plentiful in the Great Lakes. Depending on which old-timer I spoke to, you’d just drop the net into the water, and using a pulley system, yank in hundreds, thousand, or even cruiseshipfuls of ‘em.

But, in the seven years or so I’ve been working Smelt Fest for the Park District, the total number of smelt I’ve seen caught rounds out to about eight. However, legend has it that the smelt ran in these here parts like, well, lots and lots of running smelt. I don’t know how they ran because they’re little silver fish without feet.

Speaking of legends, every year at Smelt Fest we have this salty guy who sings “shanties” (songs of the sea) throughout the night. But, as I listened to each song The Salty Guy sang, it occurred to me that every shanty ever written is basically a variation of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” by Gordon Lightfoot.

It also became apparent to me that The Sea has more attitude than all of The Real Housewives of New Jersey put together. The lyrics of each song The Salty Guy sang were more hateful than the last causing my mouth to drop open, and then slowly close, much like a smelt having an out of water experience.

To give you an example, one of the songs went like this: “Oh, the sailor went out, But he never came in, And he lost all his mates, And very sad were his kin.” The next song went something like this: “Oh, the children sleep well, But the orphans do not, For they live all alone, In their own little hell.”

Then there’s this little ditty: “Oh, she waited all night, By the shores of the sea, But the ship never came back, And neither did he. So she took her own life, But the children slept well, Except for the orphans, In their own little hell.” And, then there’s this one that illustrates just what a vindictive mistress the sea can be: “Oh, she waited all night, By the shores of the sea, But the ship never came back, And neither did he, So, she took her own life, But surprised she would be, Had she lived on to see, That he’d been on the other ship, And came back to his wife. (Ok. That one didn’t quite fit my rhyme scheme, but it proves the point.)

Yes, The Sea; She was angry this year during Smelt Fest, my friends. Well, actually, it was Lake Michigan, but “The Sea” sounds so much better. Anyway, “She” didn’t leave any widows or orphans at Smelt Fest, but she was quite choppy, and the wind was a-whippen.

I was one of the people helping pull in the nets off the pier. Over the years I have helped out at Smelt Fest in many capacities because I love being anywhere near or on Lake Michigan. I’ve fried ‘em, and I’ve served ‘em, but I won’t eat ’em. I could maybe be coaxed into trying one if it were named “Rainbows and Glitterfish,” but smelt? I just can’t eat something called a smelt. It sounds like a Smurf with a communicable disease.

Now, for all of you Sea Fashionistas out there, I’ll give you the 411 on my Smelt-inspired outfit: I wore four pairs of mittens, five layers of assorted tops, a kicky little headband with super-cute yarn braids, and my fave bowler hat with an adorable wool rose on the side. I started off the night wearing the most fabu Isaac Mizrahi polka-dot rain boots, but as my feet began to get cold, I changed into my warm-as-toast black faux fur winter boots. I looked quite smashing, if I do say so myself. But, due to all of the layers of clothing, I looked like an overweight humpback whale.

But, back to the smelt at hand; the best thing about Smelt Fest, in my opinion, is how many old timers come back, year after year, and ask me the same exact thing: “How are the smelt runnin’?” I tell them they’re not runnin’ very well. I don’t say it’s because they’re fish and they don’t have feet, because that would just be rude. And even though they all say, “We used to come out here and pull in hundreds, or even thousands of ‘em,” I never get tired of hearing it. It’s as if they’re hoping that schools and schools of smelt will magically appear again.

So, in honor of all the old-timers who come back to Smelt Fest year after year, I wrote a little shanty myself, and it goes a little something like this: “Oh, the smelt used to run, But they don’t run no more, So we go out and get ‘em, From a Smelt-sellin’ store. Then we bread ‘em and fry ‘em, And serve ‘em up hot, In a big pot of oil, On a Kenmore stovetop.”