It All About, Alfresco?
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
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.
don’t want the umbrella and the umbrella stand, too?” the
Sales Lackey asked as he wrote down the stock numbers.
I wanted to yell, “I want a freaking grape arbor and some
thanks, just the chairs and the table will do,” is what I
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
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.
was all he said.
Could he hold it for me for 24 hours?
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.
and chairs for our backyard?” she virtually guffawed. “On
which sloping quadrant were you planning to put it?”
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,
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
Then she would lead me to yet another thick-leaved, rudilated,
swamp-colored, dank-thriving plant and say with gusto: “Shade
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
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
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
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.
can contact Jo Page at