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Sitting on the Front Porch.

by Cynthia Staples

When I moved to Boston from the South, one of the first things I noticed was the beauty of its historic homes, some centuries old. They were looming structures built to accommodate extended families. They had immense front porches: some Southern in style with tall columns and no railings, others with high brick walls and low sloping roofs to fend off notorious Northern winters. At the time I was both bewildered and dismayed that people did not seem to use these wonderful features even in the summer time. I grew quite nostalgic for the front porch culture I knew growing up in Virginia.

As a child in an African-American Lynchburg neighborhood during the 1970s, I considered front porches a safe haven. It didn't really matter whose porch it was. They all looked the same—narrow decks, maybe six feet deep, with thick corner posts leading to a sloping ceiling that shielded the front of the house from rain. Attached to the posts were thin banisters and railings that, from a distance, looked like toothpicks. In every corner, people tucked chairs varying in style from graceful wooden rockers to old house furniture, with just enough space leftover for a small table or two holding ash trays and flower pots.

If I was caught in a storm without an umbrella, I just hopped onto the first available porch to wait out the rain. Locked out of the house? I could visit with a neighbor who more than likely would deposit me in a rocking chair then hand me a glass of lemonade, sweet tea, or Coca-Cola. It seemed an unspoken truth that the front porch was the place where parents, older siblings, and neighbors could keep watch on every child in the community. Perhaps that same sensibility is true is some Boston neighborhoods. From my Southern perspective, though, there is more a sense of privacy and security that always makes me think twice before setting foot uninvited on someone's porch step.

I recently visited Lynchburg and stood on the porch of my family home, where my younger brother still lives. The surroundings look different. Gone is the neighbor's maple tree whose branches used to weave through the power lines and arch over our porch, providing much-appreciated shade in summer. Also gone is the spindly old pear tree that used to shed blossoms like snow in spring and stomach-ache inducing green fruit in summer. Many of the neighborhood houses have been redone, traditional wood plank exteriors replaced by aluminum siding. Most of the families have moved away. Others, like my parents, have passed on. I wondered what if anything remained from my childhood outside my memories.

My brother uses the word tranquility to describe his memories of our time spent on the front porch. Our mother, a house wife, was protective and liked to keep us close. Aside from our backyard, the porch was our primary playground. Small by some standards, it was plenty big enough to play jacks or marbles or even choo-choo train by sitting between the railings, at least until my brother got his head stuck.

Because we weren't supposed to set foot off the porch, we would lean over the banister and fish for rocks on the ground below. We hunched in the shade provided by that maple tree and planned epic adventures that would take us all the way across the street to traipse through then-vacant houses. We watched with longing for other kids to by. And, in the later afternoon hours, we waited for first sight of our father's car to come rolling around the corner. Then we'd fight to rush inside the house to tell Mother that Pop was home.

During the summer months, especially before the days of affordable air conditioning, everybody in the neighborhood sat outside on their porches. The lights were kept low to discourage the mosquitoes and other insects. Women and the elderly sat in the chairs while the men most often stood. Adults talked softly. Children laughed loudly. The air was filled with the scent of cigarette smoke and alcohol. The sky was filled with stars. It felt as if we inhabited a magical realm of peace, comfort, and joy, at least until the mosquitoes finally chased people inside or parents grew rowdy from one drink too many.

When an acquaintance in Boston learned that I was writing a piece about porches, he asked what kind. At first I thought he meant in an architectural sense. Turns out he meant something quite different. He is originally from South Carolina and from a community very different than my low-income neighborhood. In talking with him, I remembered that the South is very complex. In more affluent neighborhoods, front porches were not only gathering areas for family and friends, but also status symbols and staging areas. People might never see the inside of your house, but they were guaranteed to see your front porch—so it was important that they saw intricate wicker or beautiful wrought-iron or hand-carved furniture on the porch; not the old couch with the cat-scractched arms or the rusty patio cast-offs. Class consciousness permeates the South as much as concepts of race.

Much fuss has been made recently about how the South is changing. Even before Hurricane Katrina, the population was in flux. Immigrants from Central and South America—and to a lesser degree Asia—are changing the complexion of the South. But those who may have the greatest impact are Northerners moving south to take advantage of the milder winters, lower cost of living, and slower pace of life. They bring traditions and expectations that shift the real and imagined cultural fabric of the South for years to come. I feel it every time I return to Virginia and see old family farms turned into subdivisions with huge porchless homes.

During that last visit, while I stood on my family's porch and wondered what had become of my neighborhood, a group of young children ran down the street wearing puffy jackets and black knit caps. They spotted me and paused.

"How you doing, ma'am?" one of them asked.

"Alright," I replied. They continued on their way.

Two houses down the street, an elderly woman stepped out onto her front porch, her house dress far too thin for the weather. She peered around, saw me, and gave a friendly wave before returning inside. Across the street, two young boys raced from around the side of their house to sit on dirty porch steps, their heads low, without doubt planning some mischief.

Though wary of what might emerge from the boys' discussion, I also felt relieved as I watched them. The landscape of the South may change, as will the façades of buildings and the faces of the people. Change is important. But Southern culture has never been known to embrace change or adopt it with any speed. I have no doubt that for a long time to come, people in the South will still leave the privacy of their home for the community of their porches, for a little fresh air, a little conversation, to play with a friend or—as my younger brother and I used to do—to settle into a chair, close our eyes, and dream.


Cynthia Staples is a freelance writer and nonprofit consultant living in Boston. Her articles, essays, and short stories have appeared in several online and print publications, including African Voices, Coffee, The Rose and Thorn Quarterly, The Seattle Times, and Timbooktu. Currently she is working on a project exploring identity and the intersections of race, class, gender, and geography.
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