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The Front Porch

A gathering spot for friends. The place to collect one’s thoughts, to share good news or bad, a spot for gathering courage and strength, or just to relax and unwind.  The porch of my childhood was an outdoor living room, stretching most of the way across the front of the house, hedged in by towering antique maples and deer-eaten yews, flanked by the beginning and the end of our circular driveway.  The view was spectacular. Lake Erie loomed in the distance, warning of impending thunderstorms, and providing colorful sunsets. Matt’s barn, painted deep red, was the unwavering anchor all times of the year.  The large saltbox barn was bordered by neat rows of grapes, and spewed hundreds (thousands?) of bats into the sunset every night.  Thunder and lightning storms marched across the hill, over the corn field and grape vineyard towards us, chasing us inside once the gusty wind drove the rain onto us. We watched it all from the porch.

The sounds were dramatic and intense.  The songs of the insects began in the afternoon; cicadas, crickets and katydids, chirping, buzzing and whirring. The din swelled through the evening, causing us to raise our voices to be heard.  Moths fluttered gently in the dim light spilling through the rippled window panes.  If the mosquitos were bothersome, Dad would light his pipe, filling the air with Amphora tobacco smoke.  The mosquito zapper of the 70’s took care of many of the mosquitoes and brought a new, not unpleasant noise, but could not replace the delightful scent of Dad’s pipe.  An ancient Vitex (Chaste Tree) bloomed reliably every August, attracting bees to the south end of the porch.

The first person to the porch after dinner dishes were cleaned up usually parked in my Grandfather’s writing chair.  An oversized rocker with one very broad writing arm (for a right-hander,) it was the most comfortable seat out there.  And even southpaws like myself could imagine him writing letters to friends, cousins and other dog breeders, exchanging information in that slow, thoughtful way that letter-writers had to in those days.  I could picture my Grandmother writing ledgers or bills for her dairy farm.  I replaced the chair’s seat and back after reading the Foxfire books, weaving the soaked splints back and forth, up and down, strengthening and insuring the longevity of the chair.  It had survived a couple of generations sitting on the porch – I wanted to be sure it would survive a few more.  I couldn’t (and didn’t want to) fix the soundless ba-bump feeling of the right hand rocker, the rhythm and feel of it lulling many small children to sleep.  The other rockers and the porch swing filled as the number of people increased. Earlier in the day, those smaller rockers were ideal places to snap beans or shell peas for dinner, or pit cherries to make a pie.  When I learned to play guitar, the porch swing was the perfect place to practice - out of earshot. When summer was over, the swing’s chains clinked quietly in the breeze and the skeletal structure that held it in place stood lonely, catching brown leaves or gathering snow, when all the rest of the furniture was wintering in the barn. 

Family gatherings were always better on the porch. When the cousins came from New Jersey in the summertime, we usually ate at the picnic table; burgers, corn on the cob and salad seem to taste better en plein air. We could only enjoy that wonderful delicacy of smoked lake Erie whitefish on the porch, because the smoky/fishy smell would hang around the house for days if eaten inside.  Graduation parties, clam bakes, wedding breakfasts and hundreds of dinners all took place on the porch.

The porch was where my siblings and I came to the realization the Mom was quite sick. It was early July and everyone was home for reunion weekend. Her extreme forgetfulness indicated a major shift in health for her and she passed away peacefully just four months later.  Before she died, the two of us spent hours on the porch.  We drank Manhattans as I tried to piece together certain missing parts of the family history I didn’t know. But it was too late.  She couldn’t remember. She did recall stories of neighboring farmers and their skill, or lack of skill, at growing things.

The porch was where my best friend came to get away from everyone who was driving her crazy the week before her wedding.  ‘I just need to sit somewhere peaceful for a little while,’ she said. An hour later she could face her relatives again, with renewed strength.

That porch was the backdrop for our own wedding reception, surrounded by family and friends, many now long gone. A local bluegrass band played while guests danced with abandon on the lawn.

Our porch today is not all that different.  When we built our Nantucket house, the first and most important item on the wish list was a big porch.  Over the years we have collected some rockers that I repaired and re-seated with chair tape, a swing, and a table for sharing meals with family and friends. August birthday parties are usually held on the porch.  Countless Manhattans, endless hors d’oeuvres and many bottles of wine have been consumed there.  Corn on the cob, burgers and salad taste better with a light breeze, and the porch lit with Christmas lights.  We observe fireflies and lightning with equal enthusiasm, and watch spiders weave their webs in the pines in front of the house.  We see the occasional bat, and the Vitex blooms regularly every August, attracting bees to the south end of the porch.

I didn’t plan it that way.  I swear.