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It provided hours of carefree daydreaming at the family home downtown that we parted with last year; now there’s a big void, for sure
I remember spending a lot of time as a kid with MaMa. I spent a lot of time over there. One time she said, “Well, let’s go sit on the porch.”
I said, “What are we gonna do?”
She looked at me kinda quizzically, and she said, “Well, we’re gonna greet passerby.”
I said, “And then what are we gonna do?”>
She said, “We’ll wave.”
And she and my grandfather would sit and rock. He had his coffee can — he chewed tobacco — and he would spit, and rock and wave. And when a car would come, MaMa would kinda crane her neck a little and watch…and wave.
”MaMa, who was that?”
“I’m not sure, my sha.” (Creole for “dear”)
Why did you wave?”
Well, you always wave!”
Roseanne St. Romaine, quoted in Swinging in Place: Porch Life in Southern Culture by Jocelyn Hazelwood Donlon
Oh, how that little porch story resonates for me. Back in 1960 and ‘61, when I was 10 year old and my little brother was 8, my dad would load up the 1956 Chevy Bel-Air for a trip along country roads to Myrtle Beach, SC, for a couple of magical days at the beach. This was when our whole family had made our annual summer vacation trip from New Orleans to Sumter, SC, about an hour from what was, even then, a rather famous and quite popular resort and vacation spot along the Atlantic coast, with long stretches of white sand, a huge pavilion, amusement park, games and seafood restaurants.
My father had quite a sense of humor, and this was one of rare times in my childhood where I could say growing up was idyllic: summer vacation.
On the REO-hour drive I noticed that farmhouses were sometimes pretty close to the road, and they all had front porches.
Next thing you know, Dad would honk the horn and wave to an elderly farm couple rocking on their porch way out in what to a 10-year-old city kid was the middle of nowhere.
Total strangers would invariably wave back as we passed. My brother and I thought this was the funniest thing we’d ever seen, because, as you know, children are eagle-eyed. I could swear I saw looks of utter befuddlement at first, and then the porch sitters would beam big smiles and wave back.
We brothers. being in a silly mood with Dad singing and thumping the dashboard, and waving to people all along the way, would roll onto the backseat floorboard gasping for air, we were laughing so hard.
Honk! Wave! Another one. By the time another 10 or so miles had passed, we were all red in the face and having way too much fun. One time a poor lady dropped a whole basket of string beans she had picked in her eagerness to wave back at us.
Those were the days. Such good memories of childhood! Can you even imagine doing that today? There’d soon be a deputy sheriff pulling you over. But those were simpler times, and Dad could be a real character and loved making people laugh.
…porches and sidewalks hearken back to a time when everyone wasn’t bottled up inside behind closed doors in air-conditioned units watching TV in every room of the house. The porch is like an additional room, but one that faces the street and is open and inviting for friends and neighbors who once sat on stoops, or rocked in swings and chairs under a ceiling fan and talked way into the night, listening to leaves rustling occasionally and watching the fireflies flicker on and off in the darkness.
From my journal, written in August, 1998
When I lived downtown in the family house, we had a big porch. One of the keenest pleasures of leisure time to me, mostly after work in the late afternoons, edging toward twilight, was to sit on the porch and rock away the minutes and hours as the sun set, the birds suddenly ended their songfests, and the night sounds began to emerge. This was a daily routine that continued all the years I was there caregiving for my mother, after I retired, and up until I moved to another part of town a year ago. For 27 years I enjoyed that porch, sitting out there in a rocking chair, casting all my cares away for brief periods of time. That’s what porches do to me. How so miss that porch. An upper floor balcony is now my “porch.” It’s nice, but there’s no comparison.
I’ve written about porches on numerous occasions in the past. In fact, the very first thing I ever wrote on the Internet was the short description of porch life I shared above in my introductory quotations about porches for this essay.
Porches are civilized. They make towns and neighborhoods come alive, or seem that way, even when no one’s around. Old-timey porches, especially the huge wraparound ones on late 19th century Victorian homes, evoke lots of imaginative scenarios in my mind, if not actual memories, because the house I grew up in didn’t have a rocking-chairs kind of porch.
It used to be that every house had a porch. The heyday of the front porch was the 1880s through the mid 1920s. After that the traditional meaning and significance of porches began to decline as households In later decades shifted outdoor life to the back patio, deck or lawn. In the days long before the Internet changed just about everything, porches were where families congregated to see the passing parade of life in the streets and on sidewalks, and to be seen in turn by neighbors and the occasional strangers. By the 1950s through the early 1980s, however, you never saw new houses with porches, but then during the past three decades there’s been a porch renaissance of sorts as new houses adopted more traditional architectural styles from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
I’ve enjoyed photographing porches for more than 40 years. I can endlessly look at pictures of them. In my view, they are gateways to the soul of a house.
Although there has been a porch revival in recent decades in neo-traditional housing developments, I am still saddened that they are to be found mostly as prominent features of older houses built before the 1950s. Suburbia brought anonymity and isolation compared to former times when neighbors knew each other well and congregated on steps, stoops and front porches for conversation, visiting, and refreshments. It is sad, this gradual decline in porch life over the last few decades.
Our former house in Charleston was a “single house,” which means the porch is actually on the side at the front, so I looked out at the garden and not at the street, which I saw only by looking off to my left at an angle. Thus, Charleston’s porches are more private and made for catching the breezes that are supposed to pass through the porch and on into the “single roooms” of the house. It’s a nice arrangement. And, truth be told, I really prefer this to the more exposed front porches. Still, I’d sort of like to sit out on a true front porch with a glass of lemonade, and wave to folks who pass on the sidewalk — as if they were neighbhors — even though they are visitors, tourists, and others not of the area. I didn’t grow up with the front porch tradition. But I know I would have loved it.
My fascination with porches goes back at least to my teen years and into college and afterwards. One of the first black and white photos I took, developed and printed in a darkroom was of a small porch and chair on the front of an old house in the historic district of Sumter, SC, with a sign plainly visible, “Room for rent.” That was back in 1973. I delight in looking at all the big wrap-around porches on Victorian and Queen Ann houses from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
I conclude with this porch journal entry from June 20, 2006:
“I don’t think there is anything that calms me down and soothes my restless soul more than sitting on the porch at the family house in Charleston, rocking in a special chair such as this one as sundown gathers momentum and cicadas begin and end their brief late afternoon symphonic arrangements in the trees. Pure summer.
“Last week during my second short road trip in a month, I found myself in the center of a small town in a bed and breakfast that took me back completely to another time and place, early in the last century, where big front porches, picket fences, gardens and porch swings and rockers let people truly be outdoors and connected to the life of their streets. It was an idyllic settting.. Outside my window was a tall and ancient pecan tree. I could walk to a nearby cafe for supper, and then afterward return tothe B&B, get comfortable in the swing on the side porch, and watch as fireflies flickered in the front yard while it got darker and people and cars passed by in front in a continual parade of activity on that Friday night.
“Finally, getting a bit tired, I went upstairs to my room, a cozy bed with antique furnishings all around me, and read far into the night.
The next morning I had breakfast with a couple from Illinois with whom I talked for hours. When we parted ways, I felt I had known them all my life. What a remarkable experience!
“Traveling well means seeing places upclose. I was privileged to have had such an experience last week.”
1973: My first porch photo
Out on the Porch: An Evocation in Words and Pictureshas been one of my favorite books ever since I discovered it more than 30 years ago in a small bookshop in Edmonds, Washington.
It perfectly captures the moods, magic, and fun of porches.
Out on the Porch: An Evocation in Words and Pictures https://a.co/d/5Pm7tYV
Some of my favorite porch photos taken over the years: