The Power of a Porch

My husband and I linger for hours on ours. But it’s been a lengthy journey to get here

By Virginia Holman

didn’t realize until I was an adult that I’d missed out on the quintessential Southern experience of porch sitting. I’d spent some time on the porches of others, shelling butterbeans or detasseling corn after church for Sunday dinner, which was pleasant enough, but it wasn’t a defining experience because I’d never had a front porch of my own. Growing up I’d lived in homes that had stoops of one kind or another, but no one sat on them. In the country, I’d lived in a rural coastal cottage in the piney woods with a slab entry the size of a sidewalk square, barely wide enough to fit a folding chair. When we moved to the suburbs, we upgraded to a home with steps that led to a cement stoop, as did most of our neighbors, but no one ever sat on them on warm days to chat with passersby — the homes were too far apart — and most people drove past anyway, windows up, air conditioners humming.

My first true experience of the charms of the Southern front porch was in the late ’80s at the home of Greensboro’s late Jim “Lester” Clark, a wild-haired, gentle-spoken man who directed the graduate creative writing program at UNCG. To say that Jim administered the program doesn’t get at the scope of his assumed task. He cared deeply for the graduate students. He helped us find apartments, held our hands when we wept over a family tragedy or a bruising writing workshop review. Jim didn’t broadcast it, but he was a man of the cloth, so he was persuaded by a few of us to officiate at a wedding, a task he resisted mightily, because he knew we were all quite young, the odds were long, and like a good father, he just wanted the best for us. Mostly, Jim was a community organizer at heart, and he and his wife, Danielle, allowed us to fill their porch a couple of times a week. He always had a good crowd at the end of the month when our student pantries dwindled to scavenged leftover crackers and cheese from university functions, five-for-a-dollar packages of ramen, rice and margarine, and fed us real food on a salary that wasn’t substantially more than our graduate stipends when you considered he was supporting a family on it. His neighbors tolerated us with mostly good cheer, waving to us from their porches to his as we laughed, peeled shrimp, ate plate after plate of red beans and rice, and sweated through another Southern evening with frosty canned beer.

I didn’t spend much time inside Jim’s home except when I had a dish to warm in the kitchen or to use the powder room. I once dared to pull back the curtain of his empty but still wet shower, and saw his half-full mug of coffee in the soap dish, and immediately felt ashamed. I’d trespassed as sure as if I’d broken the lock on his daughter’s diary. The interior spaces of the house were too personal. The porch, with its hanging baskets of ferns filled with nesting finches, was where we students belonged and thrived. After all, as graduate students we were all just passing through, and the transitional space of the porch was the perfect setting for us for a few years before we moved on, our rocking chairs filled by the next rotation of students with heads full of stories they hoped to write well enough to set the world on fire.

Later, I deepened my porch practice when my father retired to a historic city home in Richmond, Virginia. As the sun set over the James River, we’d sit on the front porch in the evenings and shoot the breeze with the neighbors as they walked past. To someone who is socially shy and reserved to the point of silence with those I don’t know well, porch life was a revelation. It was the perfect way to socialize in an easy way. Who knew conversations could be dropped into and out of with such ease? Unlike a more formal gathering held in someone’s home, you weren’t obliged to engage in mind-numbing chitchat meant to place you in the social taxonomy. “What do you do? Do I know your mother; what’s her maiden name? Where did you say you went to school?” When you were porch chatting you could sit a spell or not; there was no pressure, no expectation, and the knot in my chest I felt in most social situations as a young woman loosed and relaxed. Somehow, interactions that took place around a porch were easy.

In the early 1990s, my husband and I moved to Durham and lived in what the Realtors codedly called a “transitional” neighborhood. All we knew was that it was reasonably safe, almost affordable and an easy half-mile stroll to two world-class bookstores. The area was unlike anywhere I’d ever lived. We were mostly a street of renters, but a few folks bought homes for a song and fixed them up. These were old mill houses lined up close together, and our street was a couple of blocks from a car wash, and one street over from the fire station and a new restaurant in an old grocery store that served meals that cost half our rent.

Our little block was originally settled by old-timers who had worked the mills. A couple of them still lived there. Our neighbors Betty and Stuart spent their working lives there. Stuart looked the same as he had in the 1950s, except his flattop was now gray. He’d lost most of his arm in the mill and spent his days on the front porch in a black leather bomber jacket, watching the days pass. They lived next door to our friends David and Royce, life partners who were raising three kids. David was raising his daughter with a lesbian couple, Barb and Mab, who lived a couple of neighborhoods over, and Royce had two children from a previous marriage to a woman. On the other side of them lived a young, very preppy, politically active and childless Republican couple, and across the street a devout Catholic family from Kentucky with three kids. Up the road, another lesbian couple was raising three delightful kids. Several of the larger homes held a collection of Duke graduate students who lived so many to a house that it was impossible to discern anyone’s political or sexual orientation without inquiring directly, and why would someone do that anyway? When a new person would move to our street, they’d comment at some point on “how eclectic” the neighborhood was. True, folks lived their lives in different ways, but any sense of otherness quickly vanished after a few porch sessions. After those, we were all “just neighbors,” drifting with ease in and out of one another’s lives via our porches, where we hosted potlucks, greeted a new baby and shot the breeze.

Again, I marveled at the ease of these exchanges. At that time, it was hard to imagine our delightful motley gang of neighbors with such different ways of being in the world seated together comfortably in a formal dining room, but when we gathered together on a wide front porch on a soft spring evening, it felt natural. On the porch, that transitional space in our transitional neighborhood, our differences mattered little. Over time, we became a community, looking out for one another, babysitting, bringing a casserole when someone passed away, offering tomatoes and cucumbers from the back garden.

A few years later, my husband and I upgraded to a beautiful historic bungalow with a wide front porch. The community was “well established,” the neighbors were mostly quite pleasant, though a bit less diverse, but the hedges and the price point were both higher, and we never visited with our new neighbors in quite the same way we had in our transitional community.

I know people who say they’ve lived in neighborhoods that seem designed for estrangement. A garage door opens, cars drive in or out, and the metal door closes. Neighbors are walled off from one another even though 25 feet away, someone sleeps, eats, laughs, and cries, and rarely says more than hello. These houses never seem to have porches.

We now live in a house up on stilts with two long, narrow front porches. My husband and I linger on them for hours, napping in a hammock, reading in the porch swings. We listen to the neighbor kids play basketball and eavesdrop when neighbors chat about a day on the water while they clean their catch downwind. Sometimes, I’ll lean my head back, close my eyes and hear the hummingbirds chirp and zoom as they chase one another away from the feeder. Here at the coast, I think the best days are the ones right after a storm, when the sun emerges, and the neighbors come outside and chat from porch to porch to marvel at a rainbow stretched across the sky.

Author Virginia Holman lives and writes in Carolina Beach.

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