In Praise of The Old Front Porch
If you were born and grew up on a farm in the southland in the 1940s, 50s, and the early part of the 1960s, you had a porch on the front of your house. And I call you "blessed." If you had a front and back porch, I would say that you were "really blessed."
For many years our front porch history in the south has went unnoticed and almost obscure and that to me, is a sin of neglect on my part and all who occupy homes around me. To the untrained eye, the porch is just a series of well-placed lumber with a few steps (of wood), a few chairs and oh yes, the finishing touch: the porch swing. A true southern home without a porch swing was just some lumber, mortar, nails, and roofing. That's it.
The carpenter and home designer who married the porch swing with the front porch really deserves some type of gold and silver medal to recognize their efforts — that to them at that time was just one of those ideas that happened. Now, I have to stop right here and disagree with myself. No idea, big, small, silly or useful "just" happens. They are borne to those special-minded individuals who know how to execute them on a society made up mostly of onlookers.
She was one year old in 1952 in front of the house on South Street, Raleigh, North Carolina, where she was born. People visible sitting on the porch of the house are all family.
What Was So Special About Front Porches?
Where would huge farm families of that era meet after dinner (lunch to city dwellers) and supper (dinner to city dwellers) to let their meal settle while sharing details of the day? Out in the yard, you say? Good guess, but dead wrong. The family would probably get chairs from inside their home and find the coolest place near the edge of the yard. I can tell you from experience that no family farming or retired, ever made sitting on their front porch in the dead of winter a popular social move.
So now you see what front porches were so vital to the lives of the people who sat on them. Many tough, painful secrets of youth were shared on those structures made from planks, bent nails, and splintered ends. And the recipients of those secrets and the ones who shared them did some growing in the process.
And many was the time that my family would just sit, rest, and think. Since we did not have a television, window fan or air conditioning, we would just sit on our front porch in the cool of the evening and use the ears that God gave us to enjoy the millions of sounds from "Nature's Multi-Piece Orchestra." Did you not have radio, you ask? Sure. But like I just said it was too hot to be inside our home. Aren't you listening?
I could go further, but I choose to end my introduction with a list of things we did on our front porches and I sincerely hope that you enjoy them.
- Courting that special girl or boy: yes, sitting in the porch swing on the front porch at any given cool summer evening with the unmistakable aroma of honeysuckles wafting through the air was, I know, the perfect place to tell the one who had stolen your heart just how you felt. If you had little siblings, the mother would make sure to give them a lot of chores to do away from the front porch to give you that needed privacy that only she understood.
- Counting fireflies: I do know of this activity was popular with our neighbors when I was growing up, but we loved it. But one thing. We called fireflies "lightning bugs." The object of this game was simple. Each person would see how many "lightning bugs" they could count in an evening's time. You had to be quick. With each flash of the "lightning bug" several voices would yell, "mine!" I miss this family activity.
- Catching fireflies: or "lightning bugs" was more of a universal activity across the country than just in the south land. Each person got a quart size Mason jar and went about the chasing of and capturing as many "lightning bugs" as possible before bedtime. And no "lightning bug" was ever hurt or killed. That was understood or a whipping would be issued to the transgressor.
- Killing houseflies: I don't mean to be harsh, but in the early evening in summertime, especially after a good summer shower, houseflies somehow just showed up for their time to annoy us. I think that they had hid out and waited for their chance. But if you had a store-bought fly swatter, you were uptown. This device went to good use in ridding our home (and porch) of these pesky insects. Yes, we made a sport of it and if you had more than one fly swatter it was more fun. But we could only afford one fly swatter, but that didn't stop our fun. We would share and then count the flies that we exterminated.
- Family singing: was the exciting substitute for enjoyment if you were without a television or radio. Families would choose the memorable songs of the day and just sing them as best they could. Some families did really well with this activity. Do you recall The Carter Family of early Country Music?
- Our meals: were sometimes served on the front porch due to the house being so hot from the wood stove. This was fun all except for I did not want my dogs, "Frank" and "Button" to have to beg for hand-outs. Yes, mother, I did sneak my canine pals several treats and that might explain my lanky frame in my younger years.
- Talking: yes, talking. Not chatting or texting on today's electronic gadgets. We used our mouths, tongues and ears to share details bad, good, and mysterious of the previous 24-hours. This was the "cement" that kept families bonded together. It is such a shame that families do not use their front porches for talking as they did when I was young.
- Sling-shot practice: was common for people like us who loved a good competition, but do not get on the edge of your seat. We did not shoot at cats, dogs, cows or deer. But when you live in the deep woods of the south, you see the occasional rat snake slowly crawling across your yard. True. But the rat snake would soon learn that we were decent shots with this homemade apparatus and he was soon finding an escape route. No, I cannot think of any reptile that any of us killed.
- Watermelon seed spitting: was more of a contest than it was manners while eating cold, fresh watermelon in those cool summer evenings. I do not think that I have to explain how this game was played. I do recall that I did not win a single contest, but I did come close once.
- Wasp and yellow jacket killing: was made possible by the used rines of the watermelon that we just enjoyed. Wasps and yellow jackets just love that sugary juice found in watermelon rines and when an excited wasp or yellow jacket would land in hopes of securing a meal of sweet nectar, we would open fire with our sling-shots. But one thing was to be kept in mind: Sometimes an angry wasp will seek vengeance upon the assassin who deprived him of that good nectar and he would retaliate with a good stinging of his own to our arms, legs or anywhere he could land.
- Knitting and cross-stitching: were sometimes performed on our front porch. My mom was always the efficiency expert. She was one to never put off things that she could do today. She was a true multi-tasker in that she could carry on a conversation with two or more people without missing a stitch.
- Evening naps: were always on tap for my dad who had put in a good day's work in the cotton fields that we share cropped. He made no apology for his napping while we were shooting at snakes, wasps, and spitting watermelon seeds. As I grew older I would study my dad during a nap and think, "so this is what a man at peace looks like."
I still miss our front porch. I make no bones about that. Where I live now I do not have a front porch, but I do have an open carport.
Naaaah, it's just not the same.
Good night, Verona, Mississippi.
Journey Down Memory Lane
I thought that those of you who grew up in whatever section of our country and were blessed to have a porch might like to take a few moments to look at the photos below of porches and porch swings. You may take this journey down those memories that you still retain and pay no fee to me or anyone else. I will urge you to do one thing as you take this journey to view porches and porch swings: Enjoy.
© 2017 Kenneth Avery