When I walk in the evening, in various neighborhoods around town, I always take special note of the homes that have screened-in front porches.
The porches always spark fond childhood memories of my paternal grandmother’s house in Salem Depot, New Hampshire (pronounced “Hampsha,” with great emphasis on the “sha,” if you’re from that area).
“Grammy Johnson’s” porch was about as roomy as some bathrooms are today. It was wide, across the entire front of the house, but narrow in depth. There was room for a couple of day beds and maybe one chair, if that.
But us kids – her grandkids visiting from Ohio – would hang out there with the neighbor kids for hours and hours during our annual two-week vacations back east.
If it got too hot and muggy to play outside, we would stay on the porch, which was shaded by big trees. There was no air conditioning in homes back then. If it was raining, we would play cards or other games on the porch, until it cleared up enough to go outside again.
The screens on all sides shielded us from some of the harshness of the outside world. It was a safe place where you could take your time learning new things. My older sister Linda taught me how to roll my tongue lengthwise there, and how to whistle. Some kids got their first experience playing poker.
The neighbor kids were what you might call “a little rough-edged” and challenged us to try new things. One of them said they knew where we could get a can of “beah,” known to us as “beer,” in the coming evening when their parents were out. I declined. Beer was something our parents only let us sip during dinner. So, the porch was also a place to not learn new things if we felt we were’t ready for them. I wouldn’t have my first full can of beer until the age of 15, at home in Ohio.
We could also just sit there and watch cars drive by. Or read comic books. My mom didn’t let us read Mad Magazine because she thought it was too crude. But a few copies somehow got smuggled in and she never found out, seeing’s how the front porch was primarily a kid zone. Parents were allowed to stand at the doorway and tell us supper was ready, or give other important information. But that’s about it. We dutifully filled our paper plates in the kitchen, but then ate on the porch too. Ice cream would make its way to us later.
We also threw our sleeping bags down, and slept on the porch at night. I remember my Aunt Helen standing in the doorway late at night, telling us all to stop laughing, shut up and go to sleep. I can still smell the cigarette smoke on her breath and see the curlers in her hair.
Some flying or creepy-crawly bugs still got in, despite the screens. I remember waking up one morning with red, itchy bumps on the side of my face, near my right ear, where some spider probably bit me several times. So we were somewhat protected from the elements, but not entirely.
The screened-in front porch turned out to be a godsend for the grownups too. They knew where we were, and didn’t much care what we were doing as long as we weren’t punching each other. (Well, we could punch each other but not too hard.) The summer after my dad died, in 1964, was a scary time for my mom and I think that front porch gave her the reassurance she needed that her children were safe and sound. The porch gave her the chance to spend time in the kitchen, with her mother-in-law and other in-laws. These are the people who would support her in her widowhood, which would last for five years until she remarried. And we knew where she was, and that she wasn’t going to go away suddenly, like Dad did when he had a heart attack at the age of 40.
A couple of months ago, on a really sweltering evening, I started feeling a little homesick for that front porch and its old screens. I went online and looked up the old place in New Hampshire. I knew that my cousin had inherited it and lived there, but had recently moved away. I was deeply disappointed to see that he had gotten rid of the screens on the front porch. The house looked so open and naked. The trees were gone too.
But I’m not surprised; He was about 10 years older than the rest of us and was never one of the screened-in front porch gang. So he didn’t have the kind of emotional attachment to it the way we did. Maybe it had deteriorated, and it was just time for it to go.
If our early memories indeed help shape who we are as adults, I am sure that my memories of the screen-in front porch had something to do with who I and my siblings are now. We all turned out OK, and I like to think that we are open-minded about people who don’t talk like us, or do things the way we do them. We like to learn new things, but we are better learners when we have a safe place to fail, fail again, but keep on trying until we catch on.
I can’t speak for my grandmother’s neighbor kids, though. I don’t even remember their names, so I can’t look them up. They could have had careers of crime, for all I know. But I doubt it. And I hope they all have screened-in front porches for their grandkids.