Old friends, a well-traveled table, a summer evening to remember
By Jim Dodson
On a fine summer night not long ago, seven friends came to supper on the porch.
They arrived bearing good wine, eager to see what we’d done with the old house we purchased six months ago. Since five of the seven guests were also serious wine buffs, bottles were quickly opened and the party moved out to our huge screened porch where my wife had set our antique English wedding table for supper.
The porch is a large screened affair that spans almost the entire back portion of the house. It features a floor and foundation made from antique brick and exposed beams with large old-style ceiling fans overhead.
Quite honestly, when we first saw it, we weren’t sure what to do with such a large empty space. The screens were old and dusty and the floor was uneven in places. Moreover, off the west end of the porch was a terrace with brick planters overgrown with English ivy set beneath a large pergola that had clearly seen better days. Since I knew this house as a boy — it sits two doors from the house where I grew up and was my favorite house in the neighborhood as a kid — I remembered how the Corry family seemed to live on this porch way back when, in part because it sat beneath hundred-year-old white oaks and a lower canopy of dogwoods and silver bell trees, providing deep shade and a cool retreat on the hottest of summer days. I remembered Mama Merle loving her big sprawling porch.
One early thought we had was to replace the screens with oversized weather-tight windows and create a four-season family room that could function as a small ballroom in a pinch. We also contemplated halving the porch in size and adding an outdoor fireplace — or even removing the rambling old extension altogether to expand a yard that resembled an urban jungle.
“Let’s live with it a while,” proposed my ever-practical bride. “The porch may grow on us — and tell us what we should do.”
In the meantime, over the winter and early spring, I knocked apart the aging pergola and opened up the terrace, cleaning out the overgrown planter beds and filling them with young hosta plants. I also removed a dozen wicked Mahonia plants and a small acre of English ivy and runaway wisteria, and began creating a Japanese shade garden beneath the dogwoods and silver bells.
By the time true spring arrived my back garden was looking rather promising, but the big old porch remained empty until my wife had an interesting idea.
“Let’s move our wedding table out there and make this our three-season dining room,” she said, pointing out that the size of the porch made it essentially indifferent to weather.
Our dining table is a beautiful old thing I spotted in a Portland, Maine, English antique shop and purchased for my fiancée as a wedding present two decades ago. It’s an early 19th-century English farm table from Oxfordshire that came with its own documenting papers listing at least a dozen a family names that had allegedly owned it before us. Beyond its impressive strength and workmanship, the thing I most love about it are the nicks and dents and discolorations of time that mark the table’s long journey through this world. Our family has gathered around it for every holiday meal since the day it arrived in our household, and sometimes as I listen to the eddies of conversations that take place around it, I can’t help but think about the voices that table has heard over the past century and a half, the intimate stories, the debates and conversations, fiery oaths and whispers of love.
Before moving it out to Miss Merle’s porch, however, my wife set about cleaning every surface of the porch including the elegant ceiling fans and screens while I got to work on the floor, leveling the bricks and using a distressing technique to paint the brick floor a faded woodland green.
That’s when a kind of alchemy began to take place.
The big room suddenly seemed to come alive with a human charm all its own. Soon we added plants and an antique sideboard that had never fit the in the main house even found a destined spot on the porch. I hung the custom-made iron candelabra from our old house in Maine and my bride strung small clear white lights along the roofline as a finishing touch. We suddenly had the perfect place for a pair of fine old wicker chairs we’d kept in storage forever, and an antique iron table and reading lamp that had never quite found their place. A large sisal rug Wendy found online was the final piece of the puzzle.
By the time our first supper on the porch was well underway, our guests were all commenting on the beauty of the room beneath the trees.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a more beautiful porch,” said my childhood friend, Susan, who lived in Charleston, South Carolina for years and has a designer’s eye for everything. “It’s so rustic and simple.”
“Don’t change a thing about this porch,” urged Joe, a buddy from high school who is an exceptional builder and expert on wood. He made some excellent small suggestions about replacing the vinyl soffits with wooden panels with inset lighting that would make the room even more dramatic.
The lively dinner went on much longer than expected. The stories flew, the candles flickered, the wine flowed, and the earthy scent of my restored garden drifted through the screens. At their end of the table, the wine buffs had a fine time swapping tales of their intricate journeys toward grape enlightenment.
Sipping my French sparkling water, it was enough for me to simply sit and listen to my friends go on about life and wine in ways I suspect that old wedding table had heard before over the years, taking its own pleasure in our screen porch fellowship. Don and Cindy talked about their extensive wine tours out West. Susan told a charming tale about being whisked away by a friend to Europe where she was put up and feted at a pair of the most elite vineyards in France and Italy. “It was like something from a fairy tale,” she admitted.
Somewhere about the time the strawberry and whipped cream cake was being served, my closest table companion leaned over and mentioned to me that she was thinking of walking home. It wasn’t far, only a few blocks, and the night was gorgeously moonlit. “They won’t even notice I’m gone,” Terry said with a coy smile, finishing her own glass of white wine.
Terry is my oldest friend Patrick’s wife. I’ve known her since we sat near each other in high school choir 45 years ago. A few years back Terry and Patrick sold their big house on the north side of town and moved back to the old neighborhood, a move that in part inspired my wife and me to do the same. We now lived just three long blocks apart.
“Mulligan and I will walk with you,” I proposed, prompting my favorite dog to dutifully bolt for the kitchen door.
So off we went beneath a nearly full moon that displayed one exceptionally bright planet just beneath its southern rim. Terry asked me if I knew the planet’s name but I couldn’t be sure — I guessed Mercury, incorrectly. Still, it was lovely strolling along our darkened street with its ancient trees making the darkness seem even deeper, the neighborhood even quieter. As it happened, Terry and I both had recently undergone similar kinds of surgeries. We made little jokes about that fact — at least I did — and Terry, who is one year older and many years wiser, admonished me that I would feel fatigued for many weeks yet to come, not to push myself back into my usual 15-hour work routine.
“The world will still be there after you take time to rest and heal,” she pointed out.
“Suppers like tonight may help,” I said.
“That porch is wonderful,” she came back “I’m so glad you didn’t change it.”
“I think it changed us,” I agreed, kissing her cheek goodnight.
On the walk back to our house, I was thinking how all it took was a little time and Wifely creativity, a well-traveled table and a circle of close friends breaking bread and drinking wine to transform a big empty space into something intimate and special. Objects, like people, respond to love, and since that first night of supper and fellowship, the big old porch has become my favorite spot where I do everything, from writing before dawn to reading at night. It is my sanctuary where I just sit and plot my garden or simply daydream and maybe even heal.
Halfway home, something else wonderful happened. A large night bird swooped low over my head and rose to an arching limb 20 feet above Old Man Dodson and his dog. I shined my light upward and discovered, rather startlingly, a large snowy owl staring down at me with an imperturbable calmness. The only one I’d ever seen was back home in Maine. I knew that snowy owls nested in the Arctic tundra and wondered how far this old fellow had come — or had yet to go.
Back in our driveway, the departing wine buffs were looking up at the moon with celestial-reading apps on their I-phones. What an age of wonders, I thought. An ancient owl and phones that could decipher the night sky — all within the same block.
I told them about the snowy owl visiting just down the street.
“There’s a sign of some kind,” said Susan with a husky laugh.
Joe the naturalist pointed out that eagles and northern species of owls had been returning to the city’s northern lakes of late, adopting new habitats in an ever-changing world.
He also pointed out that the bright planet was, in fact, Jupiter, and that at least three of Jupiter’s four moons were visible at that moment, a rare celestial event.
“That makes two in one night,” I heard myself say, thinking how far we’ve all come, how far we’ve yet to go.
Contact Editor Jim Dodson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more about Opti the Mystic and Mulligan in The Range Bucket List, Dodson’s new book, available everywhere.