In the mid-1990s country singer/songwriter Tracy Lawrence had a smash hit with “If the World Had a Front Porch.” The song’s lyrics struck just the right nostalgic chord as they brought back memories of simpler days and simpler ways along with highlighting the central role porches played in the lives of so many. Certainly that was true in my case because countless hours in my early years were spent doing what folks in the part of the world where I grew up called “porch sitting.”
My native heath was the North Carolina portion of the Great Smokies, and one of many blessings folks dwelling there almost took for granted was that they could enjoy their porches on balmy spring days, use them for relaxation throughout the summer in early morning and from late afternoon until bedtime, and continue sessions on them well into autumn when Indian summer held sway. With a fan invariably bearing an advertisement for a local funeral parlor or maybe shade trees located in ideal settings, even the midday hours in the heart of summer were tolerable.
Similarly, a flannel shirt or lightweight sweater made fall evenings perfectly comfortable. Such is not the case everywhere, and the lengthy annual run of what might be considered the porch season in the high hills of the southern Appalachians has a somewhat shorter span on the Columbia region scene. Even so, there’s time aplenty during the spring and fall and even summer to sample and savor the peace and pleasures of porches.
Alas, in today’s world of air conditioning, near addiction to television and computer screens, and a seeming compulsion to be indoors with a smartphone or similar device in hand, porches don’t loom nearly as large in everyday life as was once the case. I use the word “alas” advisedly, because the gradual waning of a passion for porches is something worthy of regret if not outright sadness. With such thoughts in mind, indulge me while I sing the praises of porches. Much of my tribute derives directly from countless wondrous hours spent on them, mostly on the porch at my boyhood home or that of my paternal grandparents.
Of course, there were porches aplenty elsewhere. They loomed large in summertime courtships where I had neither the money nor the means of transportation to do anything but visit. It might also be noted that in such situations, porches offered the added benefit of providing a welcome bit of privacy where it might even be possible to do a bit of hand-holding or sneak a smooch. They afforded a fine setting for picking, singing, and grinning sessions on fall evenings; an ideal place for casual and often impromptu visits with friends or relatives; and much more.
When visitors came a-calling, weather permitting, we invariably adjourned to the porch. It was a grand place to be any time temperatures were tolerable, and when thunderstorms threatened, with distant flashes of lightning followed by ominous rumbles that rolled across the miles, it was pure paradise. Sometimes the thundershowers would reach us, and the swirling winds, mist-laden air, and tin roof symphony they produced was a time of splendor. There was just enough of an undertone of looming danger, a subliminal reminder of nature’s awesome powers, to enhance the phenomenon. A porch made the moment; you didn’t get similar sensations where doors shut off the intimacy of the elements.
Our porch was almost a second home to my sister. She would sing and rock for hours on end, and on one occasion when Daddy accidentally ran over a cat in the driveway, she pretty near drove the rest of the household crazy with mournful tunes that in essence amounted to unending dirges. It was also a place to watch fireflies as light gave way to night while listening to background sounds that soothed, sustained, or occasionally sent spirits soaring.
In springtime a chorus of peepers could be heard, and even now, every time I pause to ponder the matter, I’m amazed at how tiny frogs could collectively produce such a crescendo of sound. A single one would open things up with the first note of the evening, almost as if it were a living tuning fork wanting to make sure all his fellow amphibians would be in the right key. Within mere seconds hundreds more would join the swelling chorus, and those humans sitting on the porch would be blessed to enjoy a musical treat that puts the much-hyped technology of surround sound to shame.
As spring gave way to summer, the always plentiful peepers yielded the stage to new groups of performers. From the insect world skilled musicians such as crickets, grasshoppers, jar flies, and katydids offered virtuoso concerts one evening after another. They sawed their legs, amazing appendages doing double duty as tiny fiddles, with a will. As with their predecessor act in the seasonal performances, the volume of sound these insects could produce seemed incredibly incongruous when you knew their size.
One of the lead acts of the insect venue, the katydids’ chorus, invariably evoked a special response. Folk wisdom has long held that you can expect the first frost precisely three months after katydids strike their opening tune; someone would be sure to remark on this, and Momma might even leave her seat for a moment to make a note on the calendar hanging in the kitchen.
Of course birds were part of the splendor of sound, along with provision of delightful “watching,” provided by porch time. Observing them go about their daily business — constructing nests, raising young, gathering food from the ground and air — offered the sort of relaxation it was impossible not to relish. A pair of screech owls that raised several generations of young in a huge white oak located nearby added to the porch’s overall appeal and ambiance and extended the fascination with birds beyond daylight hours.
Another twilight/nighttime joy came in early fall as bird and insect sights and sounds became a bit less prevalent. This was the hallelujah chorus provided by our pack of beagles as they sang a glad song while hot on a cottontail’s trail. For the dogs and their human overlord, my father, September and early October meant it was time to begin serious training for the coming rites of hunting season.
We always had a bevy of beagles, and the cool of the evening allowed them to run without worries about getting overheated. To listen to their music, identifying the distinctive voice of canines with names such as Lead and Lady, Chip and Dale, Bugle and Drum, Old Queen and Young Tiny, was sheer bliss to a boy so enamored of hunting it took precedence over interest in girls right through his teenage years.
Porches were a place for relaxation at day’s end, but they also witnessed plenty of work. Indeed, strange as it may seem, quite often labor and rest went hand in hand. Sometimes a number of family members would gather to talk, but when they did so more frequently than not their hands were busy as well. Mine was a family where the old chestnut about “idle hands being the tools of the devil” was taken with a full measure of earnestness.
The job of the evening might involve stringing and breaking White Princess or Kentucky Wonder green beans for a run of canning the next morning. Or maybe the beans would be strung and then, still whole, arrayed on stout lengths of sewing thread with the help of a sturdy needle to be hung and dried for leather britches. The family also kept busy shelling crowder peas and lima beans; peeling and quartering apples, either for drying or canning; working up a bushel or two of corn by shucking, scrubbing away silks, then cutting from the cob for soup mix; cutting up okra; sorting through peaches beginning to go bad that Mom had bought for a song at a local produce stand in order to use them in a run of preserves; and much more. It was, in short, commonplace for porch sitting to involve some type of work connected with food. Pleasure combined with practicality in a fashion fit to satisfy even the dourest of souls only a few generations removed from the Scottish Highlands and still deeply imbued with the concept of the sanctity of work.
Occasionally the food side of the porch equation took on a different guise. Periodically on a Sunday afternoon during the heat of the summer we would enjoy hand-churned ice cream. I don’t ever recall doing this at home but it happened occasionally at the home of Grandpa Joe and Grandma Minnie, usually when a bunch of cousins from out of town visited or maybe when a lot of us got together for a family meal. If you were willing to put in the considerable labor involved in turning the crank, your reward — enjoyed on the porch and with an audience of slightly envious onlookers — was licking the dasher.
If the ice cream was peach, and it almost always was, plenty of bits and strands of the fruit clung to the paddles of the dasher. Watermelon cuttings came with the joyous accompaniments of juice dripping chins and seed spitting contests. The sheer messy joy of such occasions virtually demanded a porch setting.
Most memorable of all for me, though, were quiet two-person porch sitting sessions involving Grandpa Joe and me. Sometimes these came when we had been placed in verbal exile; that is to say, Grandma Minnie had told us, in no uncertain terms, that we needed to get out of the house. Grandpa would mutter something about “they” not wanting us underfoot, although his application of the impersonal pronoun “they” in place of Grandma’s name somehow never eased the brunt of her ready wrath, and we would beat a ready retreat to the porch. There magic would transpire as that special bond sometimes created by skipping a generation, with the linkage of the quite young and the quite old, took place.
The setting was a grand one, for Grandpa’s porch looked out over a river that was close enough to let you hear the stream whisper and murmur as its waters rolled by on this particular leg of their long journey to the Little Tennessee, Tennessee, and mighty Mississippi rivers before eventually entering the Gulf of Mexico. Grandpa Joe would take his throne, a comfortable rocking chair made of locust with a padded bottom. Today it sits not 5 feet from where these words are being written, and Warren Buffett doesn’t have enough money to buy it.
We would get comfortably settled, and before long, I would have induced Grandpa Joe to share tales of yesteryear. He was a natural, gifted storyteller, and it didn’t take much — just a request for a rerun of some oft-told tale such as the time he shot a “painter” or cougar — and magic would unfold. I could sit enchanted for hours, doing little other than offering a bit of encouragement or tendering an occasional expression of rapt interest, as he relived what was clearly a rugged but exciting time in his life in the final decades of the 19th century. The porch was a perfect place for such tales.
Add to that enjoyment of an icy slice or two of a homegrown muskmelon, a sticky sweet and icy cold pickled peach straight from the refrigerator, or just a cold glass of water enjoyed while resting after hours of hoeing corn, and the overall picture emerges of porches being special retreats. They were, quite simply, a tiny piece of paradise, the perfect place for so many things. Family gatherings, courtships, music, relaxation, rest between periods of work, enjoying the soothing movement of a rocking chair, sensing and savoring the rhythm of a gentle rain, all formed part of the picture. Porches were a place where you could be at peace with the world, and the chorus in Tracy Lawrence’s lyrics captures some of their enduring appeal:
If the world had a front porch like we did back then,
We’d still have our problems but we’d all be friends.
Treating your neighbor like he’s your next of kin wouldn’t be gone with the wind,
If the world had a front porch like we did back then.
On a porch you could reduce stress, solve problems, apply brakes to slow down life’s often hectic pace, mayhap enjoy the splendor of solitude, sing a song, share a spate of work, or simply rock life’s cares away in dreamy blissfulness. Thankfully, at least for those willing to abandon the hectic and frenetic for the slow and simple, porch sitting still beckons with its timeless aura of romance.