Wide was the divide between the northern and southern halves of my family, but one thing the southern side had going for them was porches. In the South, before there was central air and climate control and before 432 channels were on every TV, there were porches. That people actually sat on to “visit.” With other people.
Mamaw’s house actually boasted two porches–one in back where Papaw worked on his electric fishing reels and where the wringer washer sat, and one in front, with actual windows, effectively her indoor greenhouse. This was in northern Florida, but lest they become too soft, my grandparents hardly ever used the window a/c’s. So when the summer air was sticky and close, we’d retreat outdoors to the back porch in search of a breeze.
My sisters and I would fight over the sacks of muscadines and peaches we’d picked up at the Georgia roadside stands on the trip there, and my mother and Mamaw would snap beans, shell peas, or shuck corn, depending on what the garden offered that day. You could tell their moods by their pace–slow and lazy was a good sign; brisk snapping with a quickly filling bucket meant you’d best give over the sack and share the peaches.
My mother and her siblings grew up on those porches. The screen door slammed behind them on their way out of the kitchen. They greeted neighbors there, collected bins of reels that needed fixing, broke up, made up, and snuck back in, tiptoeing up the slanted wooden steps, shoes in hand and giggling too loud. My siblings and I played cards out there, read books, and petted the raggedy cats that came to slink around our legs and meow for scraps of fish.
At the other end of the house, the front porch off the living room was filled with pots of philodendron vines and spider plants. In the tropical heat, they grew to infinity, creeping out of their containers, their vines roping outward until they had to be tacked to the walls and ceilings to keep the chaos at bay. Every surface was leafy, and if you were lucky, you got to sleep out there on the daybeds beneath that tangled jungle. I used to drift off to sleep, slightly worried that in the dark of night, with only the buzzing cicadas bearing witness, I’d be incorporated, somehow, into the curtains of green, never to be seen again.
In the South, porches are where you cut your teeth on lolly-gagging. You may or may not have a swing, screens, or the kind of upright rockers that come from Cracker Barrel, but that’s not the point. There’s an unspoken art to it, an easy cadence. Porch is more of a verb than a noun. It means soaking in a long summer evening, the kids sticky from popsicles, bug spray, and sunscreen. It means swatting a few mosquitoes and drinking sweet tea. It is the South. There is no un-sweet tea. We are not philistines.
Porching is greeting your neighbors barefoot, garden tomatoes in hand, and asking about mom’n’em. It’s digging splinters out of a kid’s foot with the nearest pocket knife and jawing about the finer points of local politics over the low grind of the ice cream maker and the steady thump of the dog’s tail against the floor. Because we are commoners, it’s a far cry from the grand veranda and stately columns where Scarlett O’Hara held court for all her beaus. But porching isn’t meant to be fancy.
There’s this place not far from us, up on top of Monteagle, Tennessee, called the Monteagle Sunday School Assembly. An unassuming little slice of community, it sits quietly on top of the mountain, a collection of charming cottages with the best porches around. The MSSA has been operating there over 100 years, conducting spiritual and educational activities during sessions each the year. It’s a little like TV’s Mayberry. Those who come to stay walk the trails and regularly stop by each other’s porches for conversation and company. I drove around there once, met a few folks, and marveled at the trillium and wildflowers in bloom. Lovely.
We work so hard trying to find things to salve our hurts, reading all the books, playing all the roles. You can’t find a much better de-tox than morning coffee with the hummingbirds or talking it out with a friend til the moon rises and the moths beat against the porch lights. We need less scrolling-a-screen time and more unwinding screened-in time. What if the healing things, the holy things we need for sustenance and buoyancy, are the same as the ordinary things right in front of us? Shucking corn while rain drips from the eaves. Laughter with a sister or two. Peaches, popsicles, and porches.