Picnic at Tenney Park

After Stephanie's death, there were suddenly a lot of places we often went to, that I never wanted to go to again. Thought there would be too many memories tied up in our favorite restaurants, our favorite parks, even our favorite movies.

Bit by little bit, though, I've been going back to some of the places and things Stephanie and I loved the most. For her birthday, I went back to our favorite diner for breakfast, and walked through Olbrich Gardens, where we had strolled and held hands so many times. And it was nice. The memories, as I'd feared, were all over the place, but in a good way. Guess I'd been afraid it might be awful, but instead it was simply sweet.

Today it's 79° and sunny, and if Stephanie was here she'd want to go for a drive, or have a picnic in the park. So you know what? I'm having a picnic in the park.

I'm not bringing the cat, though. Steph always liked bringing Minky on our picnics, which were usually at the shore of Lake Mendota in Tenney Park. The cat played in front of us, leashed to the picnic table, as we ate. And the cat loved it. We'd leave her enough leash length that she could be on the grass, or in the sand, or run from the grass to the sand and back again, and that's a real treat for Minky. Other than picnics and visits to the veterinarian, our cat has spent her entire life in our apartment. We absolutely never let her outside, unless she's on a leash.

Stephanie and I loved the picnics, and so did Minky, once we got there and had her leashed up. But the cat hated every other part of it the adventure — she hated wearing the collar, she hated having the leash on the collar, she hated being forced or tricked into her carrying case, she hated being carried to the car, and she absolutely hated riding in the car, ten minutes to the park and ten minutes back. Our cat loved being in the park, but I don't think she enjoys it enough to make up for getting there and getting back, so Minky isn't invited to today's picnic.

I wore the cat t-shirt, though. Originally it was a gift for Stephanie, because after we added Minky to our family Steph sometimes called herself a cat lady. The t-shirt, with an enormous cat face silkscreened across the chest, is adorable, or at least I thought so. Steph didn't agree. She wore it a few times to be polite, and then she confessed that she didn't much like it, so it became my t-shirt — my gift to Stephanie became a gift to myself.

Stopped at Milio's Sandwiches to have them pack my picnic: a turkey on wheat for me, and an Italian on white for Stephanie. An Italian sandwich, if you're wondering, is ham, salami, and some other kind of ham, with the expected veggies and provolone cheese. Whenever we went to Milio's, Stephanie always ordered an Italian on white, so to honor her and because I was extra hungry, today I ordered my usual and hers. "Great shirt," said the guy behind the counter. Are you listening, Steph?

And then, on to Tenney Park, where it felt odd pulling into the parking lot. Never have I ever been to Tenney Park without Stephanie. And was she with me this afternoon? Yeah, she was. She's with me everywhere, and she always will be.

Tenney Park is like two parks, divided by Sherman Avenue. On the west side of Sherman, it's a long beachfront stroll along the shore of Lake Mendota — swimming, volleyball, beaches, a long pier that's usually crowded with folks fishing, and the locks, where boats are lifted and lowered to and from Lake Mendota to the lower levels of the Yahara River and Lake Monona. The Yahara isn't really a river any more; its course has been changed so it's essentially a canal, and the water is so calm and still it's more like a long, narrow lake than a river.

On the east side of Sherman, there's a lagoon and an island, both of which are man-made, I think. And there are always folks fishing along the shores of both the fake river and the fake lagoon. Don't let the word 'fake' make you think less of it, though; it's really quite lovely. Steph went fishing in the lagoon several times, with reliable success. She never fished across the street in Lake Mendota; that side of the park was, for us, just for picnics.

After opening the car door and stepping out, my first thought was the same first thought Steph and I always had, every time we went to Tenney. Yikes, this place stinks. It's some combination of the water, the seaweed, and I don't know what else, maybe dead fish or seagull crap, but it stinks. The odor is worse in the parking lot than in the park, though. When you first step out of the car you want to barf, but walk into the park and five minutes later the stink has faded to a slight scent, perhaps even charming.

I walked toward what we had once considered "our bench," near the swimming area. That's where we sat for most of our first dozen picnics at Tenney Park, before they plopped a great big dumpster six feet from the bench. That's a whole 'nother stink, and one that never fades. That dumpster is still there, where it's been for at least ten years, so once again that bench remains empty. Not sure I've ever seen anyone sit in that bench since the dumpster arrived.

Long enough down the beach that I couldn't smell the dumpster any more, I took a bench where Stephanie and I had sat a few times. Watched the boats — some roaring fast, some sailing slow, some rowboats, some pontoon boats, and one guy in an innertube. Stephanie sat next to me the last time I sat at this bench, and Minky played in the grass. Today I sat alone, and watched some old man throw a stick in the water, and his dog swimming out to get it, time after time. My sandwich was good. Stephanie's sandwich was OK.

After eating, I walked past the volleyball pit. We never played, but we sometimes watched. I remember that we watched some schmuck walk his dog past the volleyball pit once, when no-one was playing. The dog pooped in the sand, and the schmuck laughed and didn't even clean it up.

"People are awful," Stephanie said.

"You're the only exception," I replied.

Walked along the dirt trail toward the locks, which it was a pleasant walk when Stephanie walked, but in her wheelchair it became a bumpy, unpleasant ride for her. At the locks, though, that trail becomes a sidewalk, solid and smooth cement stretching all the way out the pier into the lake. We always walked the pier after a picnic, so today, as always, I walked out on the pier.

Almost all the benches on the pier had fishermen, fisherwomen, and/or fisherchildren sitting in them, fishing, of course. Saw a teenager reel something in; I don't know squat about fish but it looked dinner-sized. All along the pier, there are thousands of rocks all bigger than breadboxes. In the water, boats and gulls and presumably lots of fish. Must've been a couple of dozen fishermen just on the pier, and they wouldn't be there if there weren't fish in the water.

We usually ended our visits to Tenney Park holding hands on the very last bench on the pier, as far out as you can go into the lake without getting wet. Today, though, someone was sitting there, so I took a different bench, one of only two empty benches in that whole half of the park. A sunny day brings everyone to the waterfront.

Sat on that bench for half an hour, remembering all the times Stephanie and I had sat on that bench and all the other benches on the pier. Have I mentioned today that I miss her? I miss her, today and every day.

I've lived in Madison for fifteen years now, long enough to feel very much at home, and to know the local landmarks. Looking north off the pier across the lake, that's the Maple Bluff peninsula. Twisting my head counterclockwise, there's Governor's Island, which isn't really an island. South of that is Governor Nelson State Park, another place we occasionally picnicked. Further south, you can see the snootier neighborhoods of Middleton on the lake's east shore. And southeast from Middleton, is that what I think it is? Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's University Hospital in the distance, where Stephanie died.

A long sigh, a few tears, a quiet walk back to the car. That was an unexpectedly sad moment there at the end, but I'd still rate the picnic delightful. Next time I'm at Tenney Park, next time I'm gazing across the lake, maybe I'll try not to look quite so far to the south.