I grew up in a small town in Northern Wisconsin. My neighborhood was filled with tightly-spaced brick homes with mature trees flanking both sides of the street. These were the days when everyone knew everybody and children walked to and from school without care or risk.
I loved the long summer days when everyone was welcome.
I would gather with kids to play outside from dawn until dusk. We would bike down the sidewalks, picnic every day, and hold massive lemonade stands to refresh the workers at the shipyard nearby. I would head in each night with filthy feet, almost asleep before my head hit the pillow.
The long playful days stood in contrast to the daily rivalry in my elementary school friend group. A cruel outcast system occurred between us, and I constantly struggled to know if I was “in” or “out.” I was well aware that any day, I might end up alone or unwelcome to play.
The first and ultimate power in the caste was held by the girl with dark-brown eyes. She was a bit of a rebel and drew me into places that seemed naughty. I always wanted to be on her side.
The older “tomboy” held a close second-place in our friend group. She was adventurous and cool, not afraid to get dirty or wear a short haircut.
The third playmate was the less desirable companion. She lived next door to me. Her mom let us make big messes and her hair looked like a mess too.
And then there was me: a tender girl with blond pigtails and a keen sense of who fit where and when.
Every morning, I was quick to make a call to secure a playdate with at least one of the top two girls. If I got her to commit for the day, I was shielded from painful exclusion. There was a sense of dread if they had plans with one or the other. Then I would be left out, and alone.
If I made my call too late, I could call the one next-door. She was tolerated but not a welcome choice, and I could easily discard her. I now cringe at the satisfaction and power I felt when I could declare to my next-door neighbor, “I have plans with brown-eyed girl.” I could sense the rejection she felt as she was “out” that day. I breathed a sigh of relief to be chosen.
My favorite times were the summertime picnics in the vacant field behind our garage. My anticipation began as my stomach would begin to growl late in the morning. My mom made the ultimate picnic: PB-&-J on white, cut diagonally in four parts—perfect for avoiding the crust when eating—Fritos in a Ziplock bag, homemade cookies, and a pickle. My friends would bring their best, and we would trade and share. My lunch was the envy of everyone. For a moment I might let my guard down and feel accepted, let all my worries slip away.
I still love picnics but they often feel as lonely as grade school. Fragments of me are still left out.
Several of my young parts have been unwelcome at my picnics. I have discarded them with disdain or abandoned them by caring for others more than myself. They have felt unworthy and unwanted, used and rejected.
I cry tender tears as I picture my second-grade self pushing herself aside when she was scolded: “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!” I feel grief as I remember my fifth-grade self ditching her “bothersome” parts when she only desired to be seen. I regret dumping other parts of my young self who felt so terribly alone.
With compassion, I consider all these pieces of me, and I gently turn toward them. I see their dignity, strength, and life. I want to know that blue-eyed girl in all her stages and longings.
This summer I will throw a picnic, one different than those of my youth. I will host these younger friends who were left alone in the past. We will find an expansive space to explore together, and I will spread out a blanket and a sweet buffet of all our favorites. We will get to know each other again, with laughter and tears, and celebrate a homecoming that’s been a long time coming.
I wonder? This might just be my best picnic ever.
Maryhelen Martens is a lover of whimsy and play, beauty and depth, all of which she experiences in her relationships. She finds life in authentic conversation, walking alongside others and ultimately Jesus – who has been so kind. Each day, she draws from a larger bowl of grace for herself and others. Maryhelen, a mom of three, currently lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with Keith, her husband and co-laborer of 29 years.