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What’s It All About, Alfresco?

It’s probably because I read D.H. Lawrence’s Twilight in Italy when I was in graduate school, but I have these recurring fantasies about alfresco dining.

In my fantasy, the table is always in a grotto of trees. It’s made of weather-worn planks. There are plates of cheeses, plates of fruit, loaves of bread. People are lounging about, some sitting at the table, others sprawled on blankets in the grass. The sun is honey-golden, and there is plenty of it, spilling off bare shoulders and making the wine bottles glimmer sea green. It is always hot enough for sundresses and bare feet.

In my dining alfresco fantasies, nobody wears Teva sandals or drinks Gatorade. Nobody sets their cell phones on the picnic table next to their car keys. Nobody drives down the street with the bass setting so loud on their radio that it shivers the silver fillings in your teeth.

In my dining alfresco fantasies, there is not a grill in sight.

But I’m a grown-up. Twilight in Italy is not what it’s about here in Niskayuna, and I’m OK with that.

Twilight In Jo’s Weedy, Shady Backyard is not sexy, but it’s the best I can do.

And so I bought a grill. I bought it secondhand, wheeling it down the street from a tag sale a block away. It isn’t the kind of grill you fire up with flavored woods whose tastes create subtle inflections that make grilling an art. It’s just a big old Sears grill with a propane tank and its own polythene cover. And it came with some of those long-handled utensils that dads are supposed to be so good at waving about.

A few days ago, Linnea and I went to Target. I’ve made peace with not having a big old table that’s been weathering for decades in someone’s grape arbor. I knew I’d have to go with whatever frosted-glass and tubular-chrome dining sets I could afford.

And picking one out was easy, since they are uniformly ugly. Some are shades of basement-floor-paint beige with innocuous floral prints woven from the recycled plastic of Hefty Cinch Sacks. Others are black, to suggest wrought iron. Some are built as little horseshoe-shaped bars, making me think of Billy Joel singing “The Piano Man” and waving a wooden-handled tong. We chose your basic frosted-glass-and-mesh-chair set because it had the twin virtues of being the cheapest and the least ugly.

“You don’t want the umbrella and the umbrella stand, too?” the Sales Lackey asked as he wrote down the stock numbers.

“No!” I wanted to yell, “I want a freaking grape arbor and some nonstop sunshine!”

“No, thanks, just the chairs and the table will do,” is what I actually said.

And as he went to fetch them from the nether reaches of the Target storage bunker, Linnea began to poke around in search of table decorations that would fill the unsightly umbrella hole.

But what did we find? Faux rocks. I’m not kidding. Faux rocks, which are a damn sight different than Magic Rocks, for those of you who remember them. We could buy a faux-rock birdbath or a faux-rock dancing frog or a faux-rock sun face that scared Linnea silly (“Hey, little girl, what do you want Mr. Sunshine to bring you for Solstice this year?”).

We opted for a bucket of citronella candle. But then the Target guy returned with the boxed versions of our would-be dining furniture on a hand truck.

And in that instant we knew that if we were going to be buying suburban frosted-glass-top patio tables we also needed to buy a Jetta Wagon.

The Sales Lackey shook his head dismissively when I told him I drove a Mitsubishi Mirage.

“No,” was all he said.

Could he hold it for me for 24 hours?

“Twenty-four, only,” was all he said.

We set our citronella bucket back on the shelf and went home.

But once we were back home, Madeleine seemed to think our failed shopping expedition had been all for her own enjoyment.

“Table and chairs for our backyard?” she virtually guffawed. “On which sloping quadrant were you planning to put it?”

Spoilsport.

The next day, my sister, Jackie, took Madeleine and me off in search of shade-loving plants. I love my sister. She is patient. She is an optimist. She is not much of a spin doctor, though.

To hear her go on, you would think that flowers are gaudy, tasteless and overstated, like une femme d’une certaine age wearing hot-pink Capri pants with a bandeau top and ankle-strap sandals. To hear my sister go on you would think that hostas are the cat’s pajamas of the plant kingdom.

And each time my errant feet would lead me toward a honeysuckle or azalea, she would take me by my elbow and say, very softly, with just a trace of regret in her voice, “they like a lot of sun.”

Then she would lead me to yet another thick-leaved, rudilated, swamp-colored, dank-thriving plant and say with gusto: “Shade lover!”

Once or twice I caught Madeleine looking with longing at the Gerbera daisies, the lovely wisteria, the fat, fist-sized blossoms of dogwood. I knew it would be a long summer of suburban compromise.

Nevertheless, we loaded the car with plant varieties that Jackie thought were marvelously textured and sculpturally interesting. And unlike patio furniture, I could actually haul them in the Mirage.

I’m beginning to think my dining alfresco fantasy has real promise. It might not be just like D.H. Lawrence, but that’s OK—he and Frieda used to chase each other around the house with frying pans anyway, so maybe I need to steer clear of too much imitation.

But I’ve got a bunch of shade-loving pots in the backyard set amid my overgrown patch of raspberries and a scattering of dandelion plants. I’ve got a bunch of blankets in place of a frosted table that would only wobble anyway, no doubt spilling the antifreeze-colored Gatorade my daughters like to drink.

I’ve got some hot-pink citronella candles I bought on sale last fall at Hannaford when I first hatched this grotto-in-my-backyard plan.

So I’ll just pop the boombox in the window, slice the melon and open the vinho verde. Who says you need more than your imagination? Vive la vie en rose.

—Jo Page

You can contact Jo Page at jopage@graceniska.org.


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