I remember my grandmother, Nana, telling a story about her mother, my great grandmother, who we all called Ma. Ma married young, as people did in the early 1900s, and had three children in quick succession. One day, Ma had just put the two youngest down for their naps and had returned to the kitchen to finish washing the laundry (by hand) and begin making dinner (from scratch).
She was interrupted by a soft knock on the front door. When Ma answered, she found an older neighbor woman standing there with Ma’s oldest child Bill asleep in her arms.
“Oh my goodness!” Ma cried. “What’s Bill doing out here?”
“Well, I was walking by your house and saw this little one fall out the downstairs window. He’s a bit scratched up, but other than that just fine. I rocked him to sleep here on your front porch, but just wanted to let you know where he was, in case you were wondering.”
Ma, who was only in her mid-20s, burst into tears. “I can’t do this! I just can’t do this!”
The neighbor woman urged Ma to sit down on the porch swing. She put Bill in her arms and then went into the house and returned with two glasses of sweet tea. They sat together and the neighbor helped Ma process the overwhelming duties that made up motherhood during the Great Depression. From that day on, this older woman came by nearly every afternoon and spent a half hour “visiting” with Ma on the front porch, encouraging her that she and her family would make it. Whenever Nana told this story about Ma, she would finish with the words,
“And that’s what neighbors did in those days. That’s what front porches were for. Visiting and helping.”
In the South, as well as much of the rest of the country, Front Porch Culture grew out of the necessity to get out of the house during hot summer days when fans were a luxury and air conditioning a far-off technological advance. In a time before television, internet, and even radio, the front porch was also a prime location for town gossip and neighborhood entertainment. Most importantly, it was a place to engage with others. It offered women a bright spot, a chance for connection and commiseration in the midst of child rearing and never ending household chores.
Children used it as a home base from which to launch their adventures and neighborhood mischief. Fathers used it as a place to decompress after a long, often physically exhausting day; a place to enjoy a cool drink and the evening paper or conversation with neighbors about the disquieting economic and political issues that threatened the nation. The front porch became ground zero of a concept that past generations engaged in with apparent effortlessness: community.
Silly as it may sound, I believe that a return to Front Porch Culture is something modern-day Americans should strive for. It is something I have tried to foster no matter how busy the day, no matter how many duties still left on my list.
Here is what I have found to be effective: during the warm months spruce up your patio furniture; mix up a pitcher of lemonade, sweet tea or margaritas; grab your favorite book or a few magazines, and head outside. Watch the sun ease its way over the horizon with your loyal canine companion. If you see a neighbor, invite them over for a drink. Or just visit with your family members about their day. By being outside of your insular home, you’ll seem more approachable. Conversations that wouldn’t happen inside seem to flow in the breezy, summer-scented outdoors.
Front porches are for visiting and helping. And who doesn’t need a little more of that?
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