Tuesday, September 9, 2008

PORCHES

The threat of another hurricane entering the Gulf of Mexico and the devastation it has caused in Haiti and Cuba sends me out to the red-tiled front porch for prayer and pondering. It’s a small porch, a square of red tiles atop concrete, held up by wrought iron supports, and it overlooks ¾’s of an acre of woods here at Sewanee. I sit on the porch, taking in the cool morning temperatures of 66 degrees, watching birds practice their “beingness” and thinking, again, about the sentence from Scripture: “and he got up, rebuked the winds and the sea and there was a dead calm.” From the vantage point of this high and dry porch, hurricanes are memories to me right now, but I’ve experienced their realness many times. Anyway, porch sitting is not something I do well, but I use it as a center of meditation and prayer arrows.

Porches once evoked a kind of relaxation that southerners valued, particularly during the 19th and 20th centuries when, at first dark and following supper, families got together to talk. In my childhood, porches ran the width of the house and were a civil place where neighbors often came to sit in tall rockers or wicker chairs on a warm night. They offered a place where there was no mention of “what’s the next thing?” They were just mini retreats where you sat, suspended in a non-judgmental, fraternal atmosphere, listening to locusts or katydids and watching lightning bugs blink in the quiet darkness.

In Franklinton, Louisiana, my Grandmother Greenlaw’s front gallery ran the width of her Victorian frame house and traveled around one side that was later screened. It held a swing with green scaling paint, four tall rockers painted lime green, and several stands of Boston fern. The white balustrade that also ran the width of the porch was topped with a railing that caused no end of trouble because grandchildren loved to test their balance by walking on the long rail. My sister Sidney Suzanne and I were no match for daredevil brother Paul who ambled across it without stuttering and often jumped to the floor of the porch, taunting us to walk across…fast. I managed to make one trip across the rail without wobbling, but, alas, Sidney Suzanne, on her first attempt, tiptoed, tottered, and fell to the ground, landing with a loud thunk. I peered down at her unmoving, unspeaking body (the wind was knocked out of her), then ran screaming for my grandparents. Thereafter, Grandmother’s gallery was restricted to strictly sitting, much to our relief, and brother Paul had to seek out tall trees to climb and fall from and chemistry labs to blow up (both of which he did with such aplomb that his school principal dubbed him “incorrigible”).

Grandmother Nell made good use of her gallery, posting herself in the scaling swing with her back to 10th Avenue which ran in front of a tall oak beyond the front porch. She angled herself just so she could glance sidelong at every car that passed and critique what the drivers/passengers looked like that day. Since meticulous personal appearance was one of her qualifications for “good character,” she often grumbled about the appearance of business men who drove into her vision – the ones who had removed their ties and rolled up their shirtsleeves on the way home from work, not to mention the slovenly women who drove by wearing scarves tied around their heads in crude topknots because they hadn’t taken out bobbie pins and coiffed their hair that morning. She was also positioned to observe the goings/comings of her neighbors, the Moores, whom she called “common” (the worst examples of “character” in her lexicon), complaining about their cage of Catahoula hounds that bayed when the noon whistle blew and the loud Gospel music the old man tuned in at every meal. One Fall, when I married the son of those common folk, she didn’t come out on the front porch for a week, and the old swing sat unmoving, like her hardshell Baptist morals, not yielding to the gentle October breeze until she recovered her pride and went back to porch sitting.

Grandmother Nell and Grandmother Marquart enjoyed another form of porches common to the South called sleeping porches, and here is a sardonic commentary about those gems that appeared in my book of rhyming verse entitled GRANDMA’S GOOD WAR:

SLEEPING PORCHES

Among all arrangements of sleeping, one memory overarches,/
tall Victorian houses with small sleeping porches,/
half-screen, half wood tacked on front or back,/
adjoining larger bedroom for female insomniac,/
the wife who couldn’t be bothered with spouse’s raucous snoring,/
or who, perhaps, thought his bedroom antics rather boring,/
so he was banished into this place unaesthetic and unpleasing/
on winter nights, even in the South, temps approaching freezing,/
a porch boasting iron bedstead piled high with bright quilt,/
heavy bedclothes covering some matriarchal guilt/
at forcing husband to this simulated outdoors,’/
to keep her safe from his nighttime amours./
Two porches graced my Grandfather Vern’s clapboard house,/
and one my Grandfather Paul renamed “the Victorian outhouse,”/
birthplace of erotic dreams that drifted into my room/
which opened onto the porch, shrouding it with gloom./
In old age Grandmother Nell joined him, leaving bedroom to me/
when visiting, I never slept the night, knowing that he/
yet endured a winter bitterly cold/
in a freeze-out turn-of-century old. /
Remembering, I fear he died from a case of “no intimacy” /
on a sleeping porch that fostered Victorian celibacy.
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