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Randi Kreiss

The porch: not just a place, but a place in time


Nearly 50 years ago, we bought our house in Woodmere because it had a back porch. The seller was very clever. She whisked us through the front of the house and straight out to the porch, where she was sipping coffee and reading a book, as pink and white magnolia blossoms tapped against the screens. It was love at first sight.
Our porch is our summer place. The pine walls let in the first chill winds of autumn, so our porch season is limited. The limitation adds to its charm, since we begin thinking in April about the many dinners we will enjoy alfresco once summer comes. It is my favorite room in the house. Although we have perfectly good beds and couches inside, a porch nap, with the overhead fan stirring the air, is dreamy.
These warm autumn mornings, I drink my Bustelo brew and read the newspapers in my back porch, looking out at the garden and listening to the birds and thinking how lucky I am to have a place that brings me such peace. Sitting out there moves me out of the house and into the day, quietly, the way I like to begin. From the porch I can barely see any other homes; the privacy is complete.
When I sit out there, I notice things. Last week I saw cardinals sweeping back and forth across the yard and watched, day after day, until I spotted their nest nearby. I see other things, too, that aren’t there anymore, like my little kids screaming and jumping in and out of a kiddie pool.
In recent years, community developers have started building new “old-fashioned” towns in an effort to recreate one of the most precious pieces of Americana — the small, hometown neighborhood. The new communities have clean, narrow streets, variety in the home styles, built-in green space and — most important — ample porches.

The builders might as well save their money. Architects may erect nostalgic wraparound porches in darling Disneyesque communities, but there undoubtedly will be more Pelotons than rockers on those porches, and more cellphones and TV’s than pitchers of lemonade.
There is such a thing as porch culture, and I advocate strict adherence to its traditions. You simply cannot fake an old-time porch. Our porch has no TV and no electric light. In the evening, if we have dinner there, we experience the gradual fading of the day. We light candles. This has led to a remarkable phenomenon, which I refer to as porch therapy. In the glow of the candles, as the sun fades and the moon rises, people who sit in our porch are given to personal revelation. The mood invites intimacy, and we have heard, and told, our share of secrets.
The essence of porch culture was captured eloquently in an old favorite novel, “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” by Rebecca Wells. She writes of four girls growing up in Louisiana in the late 1930s and early ’40s, and at one point she talks about their porch life:
“An afternoon of iced tea and idleness. Those Ya-Yas aren’t going anywhere . . . They are lazy together. This is comfort. This is joy . . . Not one wears a watch. This porch time is not planned. Not penciled into a DayRunner. . . . People took porches and porch time for granted back then. Everybody had porches; they were nothing special. An outdoor room halfway between the world of the street and the world of home. . . . And in the evening when the sun went down, the fireflies would light up over by the camellias, and that little nimbus of light would lull the Ya-Yas even deeper into porch reveries. Reveries that would linger in their bodies even as they aged.”
According to the website This Old House, “In American literature, the porch is a stage where the symbolism is often as thick as the summer air — a transitional space between the cocoon of home and the cacophony of the outside world.” Another perfect example is the porch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
For me, an ideal summer day begins with breakfast on the porch, includes a spell of reading and inevitably a nap, and then dinner with cicadas chirping their song into the twilight. Here we are in October, and that song feels ever more precious.

Copyright 2020 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.