Porch Memory

Every summer we’d make the eight hour trip to Williamsburg, KY from Dayton, OH to Grandma’s house. It was really Uncle Clyde’s place, her son, but we thought of it as her’s since we saw little of him and she was always there. The front porch on the old house was bigger than rooms in most houses. It seemed liked you could live out there. Actually, now it seems like we did. The adults would read the morning paper there while they drank strong black coffee from a percolator. In the evenings they would gather there and talk about current events and each other.

Those were the days when the movie theaters bragged that they were “Air Conditioned!” or small shops advertised “Come in! It’s cool inside.” No AC in this big old house. We had a porch when it was too hot inside. On a summer’s evening we brought the transistor radio out, permanently tuned to the baseball game and bowls of ice cream there while the parents drank iced teas and beers and watch the game on the radio.

We’d always be in that porch swing. It was painted robins’ egg blue and everyone wanted a spot in the swing. There was always room for one more person to squeeze in – swinging cheek to cheek. There was also a metal glider painted from the same can of paint as the swing that may have been the second best seat but wouldn’t glide properly if too many piled in, but everyone still managed to squeeze in.

For a while there was a fat old rocker that had been my other grandma’s. When we moved it was too big and too old fashioned so it got hauled down to Williamsburg, although I don’t remember how or when. I do remember that old rocker being in our house on Clover Street in Dayton and one of the earliest memories I have is of sitting in my mother’s lap and being rocked when I was afraid of the trash collectors outside.

That old oak chair with the upholstered seat just seemed to vanish from the Williamsburg porch. One visit it was there the next it was gone. Granted the seat had come out and the veneer was peeling, so maybe there was a legitimate reason it had to go away. But that swing? Just because the old slats were broken and it would no longer hold our ever larger butts. It eventually disappeared as well.

There was always an assortment of kitchen chairs out there on the concrete porch. Those chrome dinette chairs with the plastic upholstered backs and seats. The old oak chairs with caning looking really tenuous and frayed. They would creak whenever anyone sat in them. It was sort of a chair museum of the twentieth century on that front porch. And if you got there late or you weren’t staying long there were the porch’s rails — wide enough to accommodate a smallish behind.

One of my greatest memories is sitting on that porch and watching the weather fronts move across the mountain to the west. The sun could be shining on the lawn and a big dark, nearly black-dark cloud would be moving toward the porch bringing rain. The leaves on the trees would turn up and the wind might pick up the leaves on the ground. I could smell the change in the air, smell the rain. If it had been a really dry spell I could see the raindrops stir the dust on the road because pavement on Sixth Street ended almost in front of the house before continuing on as a dirt road.

A streak of lightening overhead and a mist of rain blown onto the porch would send the aunts dashing indoors, but not me. The mud daubers that lived in the corner of the red brick piers had enough sense to get inside. I lived for these moments. It was too exciting to miss.

For the longest time there was a curious diorama on the porch. Painted blue to match the other furniture. I was told it was built by Grandpa Hill and maybe that’s why it fascinated me so. I never knew him so I suppose it was as if he was there in his little sculpture.  It was the height and size of a small plant stand and made of willow twigs bent to for the legs. On the top was a miniature scene of a log house and small buildings—a replica of a farm made of small bent willow twigs. The same paint that went on the swing and the glider covered the tiny scene. It was rather dilapidated and it too eventually disappeared. I always felt disappointed that I couldn’t know this person who must have had a creative streak.

A sculptor in my town does these wonderful sort of folk art scenes of childhood memories – old men playing chess, kids baking cookies with an old woman, carving a pumpkin, church ladies showing off their hats – and I often think I’d like to commission her to do a scene from that porch. It would have Grandma Hill in a house-dress and apron sitting in that glider with the aluminum wash pan full of green string beans she had picked that morning before we were out of bed. In the chrome kitchen chair one of the aunts would be snapping a bowl of beans and another might be peeling potatoes. A couple of the older nieces and grandkids would be helping to break beans for supper or threading them onto strings to hang in the back porch while listening to the older women talk about the news events or family gossip.

From that porch you could see the huge five acres of vegetables tended by Grandma and her brother Ben. In the winter you could see the neighbor’s house on the other end of the garden. In summer the corn and okra would be so tall you wouldn’t know there was another house. The old maple tree where my cousin Jimmy fell and broke his arm and the old shed with the exciting combination of a leaky faucet and an electric fence was to the east of that porch. Out near the road, in sight of the porch, was the pen with the stinky hunting dogs and their doghouse where we weren’t supposed to play with the dogs, but we’d pet them anyway.

On warm summer nights we’d sit out on the porch in our pajamas after a bath in the old claw foot tub upstairs. The aunts and uncles would gather and smoke their cigarettes and drink an RC or a Pepsi. Or some evenings we’d punch holes in the lids of mayonnaise jars and catch fireflies to carry off to bed where we’d watch them twinkle till we fell asleep. Some nights the grownups would be absorbed with pinochle or penny poker at the dining room table and the kids would play outside in the dark– unsupervised. The brave ones would lay in the grass with broomstick in the air and wait for bats to dive down checking them out. The not so bold would stay safely on the porch out the way of certain death by wildlife.

These days I fantasize about having such a porch. A real porch allows for a whole lot of life coming and going from fireflies and crickets and daddy long-legs and snow and rain to babies and grandmothers, reunions and departures. A real porch has to be big enough to make everyone feel safe no matter what may be going on when you stepped off and into the world.

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