His dad got home about an hour later and the four of them piled into the car for the hour-long trip to Santa Fe'. Ally and Thomas played car bingo in the back seat for about half of the trip. Then they started getting restless and a few ‘are we almost theres?’ later, they arrived at Grandma's house. Uncle Sean, Aunt Alice, and their two kids, Ralph and Molly, were already there. They had come in from Las Cruces, which takes infinitely longer than the trip Thomas' family just taken. He had not seen his cousins since Thanksgiving last year because Uncle Sean’s family went to Aunt Alice parent’s house during the Christmas break. He missed them on that holiday, but they were here now and Thomas was glad to see them.
“When did you guys get here?” Thomas asked Aunt Alice while they hugged.
“We got here at about noon,” she squeezed Thomas. “Uncle Sean did not have to work today and I started my vacation.”
“What about Ralph and Molly?” Thomas didn’t completely understand the concept that their schedules could be different. “Me and Ally had to go to school today.”
“They finished yesterday.” Aunt Alice wiped the smudged lipstick off Thomas’ cheek. “What are you going to do this summer?” she queried.
“I don’t know,” Thomas replied and he sincerely had not thought of the summer beyond tomorrow’s picnic. “I’m just excited for tomorrow.”
Hellos and pleasantries were exchanged with the rest of his family. Grandma asked if he wanted something to eat. Grandpa threw a pretend punch and acted hurt when Thomas fake-retaliated. Uncle Sean commented how much he had grown. Ralph and Molly said hi and then the kids separated into the usual boy’s section in the backyard and girl’s section in the den for both parties to catch up. Thomas and Ralph compared toys, talked about school, played war, smashed ant hills, and then it was time to eat. They resumed after dinner and soon it was bedtime. Thomas didn't complain, he was tired and knew he was getting up early to go scout out the site with Grandpa in the morning.
It was early when he heard the whisper, "Time to get up. Let's go." Thomas did not need much coaxing from Grandpa to get out of bed. He got up and tried to wake up his cousin.
"C'mon Ralph," Thomas was excited. It was here! The event!
Ralph did not share the enthusiasm, "Go away!"
Grandpa whispered, "Come on Thomas. It looks like it's just you and me." He turned toward the kitchen to fill his thermos with coffee. "Go get ready. We leave in half an hour."
Although Thomas wanted to spend time with Ralph, he was kind of thankful that just Grandpa and he were going out to scout out the picnic site. Spending time alone with Grandpa made him feel special, like he was important. “Okay. I’ll be ready,” he whispered so as not to wake Ralph. With that, Thomas shot past Grandpa for the bathroom to brush his teeth. One thing about Grandpa: if he said thirty minutes, he meant thirty minutes; he did not wait for anyone.
Before long, the two of them were in the car heading for the forest where the campground was. There was a day use area in the Santa Fe’ National Forest where they always held their family picnic. They rode with the windows down and the air grew cleaner and a bit cooler as they entered the lush blanket of pine trees. The sun felt good on his skin as it flashed between the trees and the scent of the fresh pines filled the car, which relaxed Thomas. He loved the big trees for two reasons. First, they provided shade from the hot desert sun in the afternoon so he and his cousins could play longer. Second, they rendered piñon, or pine nuts, a southwestern delicacy. The family often came up to the same forest, right before the Balloon Fiesta started, to harvest the succulent nuts, which they took home, roasted, and ate as a snack. The year’s bounty rarely made it past the Thanksgiving school break.
"How was the second grade?" Grandpa asked.
"I'm just thankful that it is over," Thomas replied.
"That bad huh? What made it so terrible?" Grandpa continued his line of questioning.
"My teacher thought I was a troublemaker," Thomas confessed. "And there were two other boys that just got on my nerves all the time." He explained how Ryan and Victor dominated the class and that he felt incompetent next to the two, which lasted the whole school year.
"Why are you comparing yourself to others?" Grandpa asked. "You are not Ryan or Victor or any other boy. You are Thomas and you only have to compete with yourself to be the best you you can be."
Thomas did not quite grasp the concept of competing with one's self. "How do you mean?"
"You have your own qualities Thomas," Grandpa explained. "And you have your own experiences. These qualities and experiences are what make us individuals. You only have to make sure that you keep your mind open and take advantage of opportunities to improve yourself."
Thomas thought this sounded like good advice, but was still glad the second grade was over. Maybe he could make use of this advice to prepare for the third grade, which had to be considerably more demanding than the one he just finished. Thomas filed the conversation away for future use as they drove deeper into the forest.