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Friday, June 13, 2008

Good Porches Make Good Neighbors

One of my most vivid childhood memories is sitting in the dark, on the screened-in porch of my next-door-neighbor's house, and listening to the grown-ups talking. In the moist, heavy heat of a Georgia summer, the little ceiling fan on the porch would force a breeze, and the crickets would begin to chirp as night fell. The puffs of wind beyond the screens carried the faint scent of magnolia blossoms, and the asphalt twinkled with embedded sparkles in the pools of golden streetlamp light where hard-shelled Junebugs gathered. There was no light on the porch, so as to avoid attracting insects, and as the darkness gathered closer and enclosed our little room, I felt cocooned in an almost magical place.

We lived in a house on a horseshoe shaped block of homes that had been built for returning GIs after WWII. Every single house on our street had the same front bathroom (what had once been the only bathroom), with the identical pattern of black-and-white tile on the floor and walls. You know the pattern; it's very like the "retro" one you can buy at big box home DIY stores now, except there is something different, a bit glossier, and better, about the original. We all had the original.

These were small houses -- two front rooms, a kitchen, bath, two bedrooms -- that had been added onto over time so that by the time we lived there in the early 1980s, they all had a slightly different footprint. Except for three things: that central black-and-white bathroom, the wide front stoop, and the porch. Some houses (like ours) had enclosed the porch. But not next door.

The people next door were about 10 years older than our grandparents. Although we were taught to call the parents of most of our school friends Mr. and Mrs. Lastname, these grandparently souls next door were known simply at Teta (pronounced tee-tuh) and John. "Teta" was the lisping toddler pronunciation of her real name, Teresa. And as so many of the children on the street had grown up thinking of her as their local grandmother, they had stuck to calling her Teta even when they could speak better.

I don't remember talking much myself on her porch. At least, not after the darkness settled in. On summer nights, between the ages of about 11 and 14, I had few options for how to spend my time once the dinner dishes were done: read, play kick-the-can with the kids on the block, babysit for $1 an hour, or go sit on Teta's porch. We tended to call our games over once it got really dark; sometimes we would stay out talking till our parents called us in; sometimes the party would break up earlier. On any night with nothing else pressing going on, I would go to Teta's house before it got quite dark -- strategically early enough to get my favorite chair, a low wooden rocker.

We would talk, and she would tell me stories of her childhood growing up in Greenwood, Mississippi in the early 1920s. She had 10 (or 7?) brothers and sisters, the youngest of whom was called Hattie. Poor little Hattie was always getting into scrapes -- dared to swing on the trapeze they'd rigged in the attic, then left hanging there, stuck half upside down, while the rest of them trooped on to the next activity. I don't actually recall many of the specific stories she told, though I do recall her voice, the soft slight accent on some words, the exclamation of surprise that stood for any occasion that one might need a swear word, "Well, GAR-den SEED!" And I recall that as it got darker, Teta's porch door would squeak slightly when a neighbor opened it, then bang smartly shut thanks to its spring, while someone new settled down into a chair for a chat. Sometimes it was gardening. Or children. Or I don't know what else. I would sit in my corner in the dark and listen, loving the stories, the ritual, the sound of the door welcoming each new visitor with a wooden smack that reassuringly promised to keep out the bugs. I know that the woodwork holding the screens taut was painted white. I know that we (for I was not the only girl hunkered down there on the porch, though in my mind's eye, I am the one there most frequently) were occasionally allowed, if we called our mothers to ask permission first, to drink an ice-cold "co-cola" from a little glass bottle. I know that most women brought their own large tumblers filled with iced tea as they sauntered over to Teta's for a chat.

In my memory, there were only ever women on her porch. John took the little terrier, Barney, for a walk every evening, and saluted the talking ladies with a wave and a nod as he exited the house, but otherwise, we never saw him. Or any other husband or father that I recall.

This screened porch was a woman's sanctuary. A place to relax, tell stories, laugh, reminisce, soothe heartache, talk about the neighbors, plan parties. A place to connect.

In retrospect, I see that the magic I felt when I sat in that rocker sipping my drink was the simple magic of being part of a community. I knew everyone on the street, knew my way to their fridges and bathrooms, knew the best hiding spots in their yards, knew the names of their parents and the teachers of their kids. I knew whose door had won the decorating contest at Christmas and whose had been kicked at by "The Prowler." I knew the names and ages of every single one of the 30 odd kids who lived "around the block."

And I knew, when I sat in my favorite rocker on Teta's porch, that I would hear something that I did not already know. Something that I would be glad to know. Whether it was useful or merely funny, a curiosity or a necessity, I would learn something new every single night on her porch, at the same time that I was learning something very very old--the power of community.

As it turns summer here in Michigan, I miss those days immensely. Don't get me wrong; I have some dear and lovely friends who live both near and far, and I am beginning to knit myself into a new community online too. I can call my friends, and make lunch dates, and email, and have an occasional girls' night out. What I am missing is not love or the intimacy of good friends. What I miss is neighborliness. Having lived in my house for five years this summer, I can only tell you the names of families in four houses on my street. No one has a screened-in porch, much less an open door policy where neighbors just wander over, drinks in hand, and pull up a chair without an invitation. For on Teta's porch, an invitation would have been extended only to a stranger. The guest of a neighbor, for example, would have been politely offered the best chair (the big wooden rocker) as well as some sweet tea. Everyone else just pulled open the door and sat on what was available. The rules were simple: if Teta wasn't home, the door was latched; if she was, you came in, and you didn't expect her to serve you anything except some delightful talk.

Perhaps there are still neighborhoods like this. I like to think there are. I like to think that somewhere adolescent girls are knitting themselves into the fabric of womanhood through the simple power of presence and talking. Perhaps I am over romanticizing. But I do wish that my own daughter could grow up secure in the sanctity of the screened-in porch, surrounded by stories of love and work, sun-tea making and gardening, childhood and milestones, until the nights wove themselves together into a tapestry of shared experience.

18 comments:

MultiplesMommy said...

What a lovely, lovely post! I, too, miss those nights and that sense of community. It was something that we were really looking for when we bought this house 2 years ago, and sadly, didn't find. Our neighbors are NICE, but they are not FRIENDLY, if you see what I mean. I miss knowing that I am always welcome at Teta's, or that if I don't wander out of the house after dinner in the summer, some other kids will coming looking for me to play. I envy our parents', and especially our grandparents', generation the easy over-the-fence chatting. I think this is what comes from over-scheduled kids and parents frightened of strangers and dangers. It saddens me greatly. I wish I knew how to recapture it. But if nothing else, you know my screened door is always open.

zoeyjane said...

i always wanted some sort of memories like that - i didn't grow up in a very neighbourly environment - and i wish my daughter could, too. i think i'm going to have to move to a small town, because it seems like we're running out of places with porch swings!

MIQuilter said...

I feel the exact same way! I have lived in the same house for 3 years now and know exactly NONE of my neighbors. Well, we wave and smile at each other when one is walking the dog and the other passes in the car. But nothing is ever spoken and I wouldn't know them in a lineup if my life depended on it. I truly loved hanging out at Tetas and do miss that. I have no idea how to create that sense of commuity - but I agree with zoeyjane - maybe you have to move back to a small town. Or at least a community with a small town attitude.

Lynette said...

I miss that too! I loved knowing that I run wild with the neighborhood, and still be safe. When I lived on base, they still have a sense of community, where the kids play and visit..but now that I live out in "town" you're scared to let the kids wander to far.

So sad.

Mr Lady said...

I grew up in the Ghet-to. I am not joking. This post? A pretty accurate description of the dream IO had of the real world.

If you find that neighborhood again, tell me, okay? 'Cause I'll move.

Sandy C. said...

What a beautiful post :) Your story reminds me of my own back patio in the house I grew up in. I too wish this for my daughter. I hope she'll have memories like yours and mine to reflect upon.

Mrs F with 4 said...

We didn't have the screened porch (or the bugs), or the iced tea, but we did have that same wonderful sense of belonging to a community with shared history; where appointments were not necessary to visit, or play; where the kettle was always on; if the milk bottles or post were still on the doorstep after 9am, at LEAST 10 people would let themselves into find out what the problem was.

Though I see it through the rosy spectacles of distance and time, there were of course disadvantages too... little or no privacy, terrible poverty behind closed doors - and no chance t lie in beyond 7am. "What are you doing lying in bed when the cows need milking / carrots need hoeing / sheep need dagging?"

I am, however, glad that I have found a place to live with an almost-nearly perfect attitude to community, even if a continent away!

Chesapeake Bay Woman said...

You have so eloquently described the very reason I moved back home after living for way too long in the Washington, DC, suburbs. I couldn't get over that I had soooo many neighbors and I didn't know their names.

The sort of community you describe does still exist, it's just sadly becoming the rarity.

You are so very fortunate to have grown up in such an extended family. Because that's what they are, family.

What a great post.

McMommy said...

What a lovely read!!!

I feel so lucky that my neighbor is the kind who comes over to my house with a bottle of wine in her hand and her baby on hip! She is the one I can call on in an emergency and say "can I leave the boys with you?" and she knows she can do the same with me.

A perfect POW post, Mommytime!

Amy said...

I miss my front porch. I loved to go out there and just sit and read while the girls were napping. And it did just seem to invite people to "come on over". No porch now, but an amazing group of neighbors and we just pull the white trash chairs out in the middle of the cul de sac and drink wine til all hours. We are truly blessed to be where we are.

lattemommy said...

Sadly, I have come to believe that the kind of community you are describing just doesn't exist any more. People aren't interested in befriending their neighbours, no one just "drops by" any more. People are too busy, too preoccupied, too self-absorbed.

*sigh*

You are an old soul, MT, I come to see that more all the time. Oh, how I wish I lived near you. How I wish you'd drop by my house for coffee in the afternoon or a drink in the evening. (Make that several drinks!)

Twenty Four At Heart said...

What a beautiful post!

MultiplesMommy said...

Mrs. F -- I'm almost scared to ask, but what exactly is involved in dagging sheep???

Mrs F with 4 said...

Dear Multiplesmommy - Are you SURE you want to know this?! The rear end and around the tail of a sheep (our sheep keep their tails) tend to get, how shall I say... rather encrusted, and they are known (in my area, at least) as dags. Hence, dagging a sheep is clipping the wool away from her arse. I suppose it should really be 'de-dagging'...

Aren't you glad you asked?!

foolery said...

Sometimes you can make it happen, sometimes not. I'm currently in the "not" phase, and I miss it.

I have been allowing my blog to guide my pen, so to speak, for months now, and while I have enjoyed the ride immensely, I find myself missing the days when the only force driving my pen was what was in my memories. I've been a little lost lately; I have needed inspiration for several weeks to write about hearth and home, and you have given me that inspiration. Thank you now and always for your powerful voice, MT, and for being a light in my blog fog.

auds at barking mad said...

This post has stirred up so many feelings. I've been meaning to come back to it for days now, but with Heartbreak Hotel NEEDING to be written, I could do little more than put it on my to-do list.

I spent most of the childhood weekends and vacations/holidays with my three elderly dutch aunts who all lived on the same street in a small town in southern California. A sense of community was strong and everyone knew everyone else...they had forever. All the people on that street had been there since WWII. They'd sent their husbands and sons off to war together, prayed through vigils and held each other tight when the dreaded news came of a lost loved on overseas.

I adored spending warm and breezy summer nights on the back enclosed porch. There was a sliding couch type thing, a glider, a rocker and several comfy chairs. If it was really hot and my Aunt Meta didn't feel like cooking indoors, she'd use the large convection oven which sat on the back porch. Depending on what she was cooking, you could sometimes be playing three or four houses down and smell the delightful aroma wafting through the neighbourhood.

So vividly I recall sitting in the glider and sipping homemade lemonade - from lemons off of Aunt Wilhelmina's own tree no less, whilst my aunts and other relatives sat back and talked politics whilst the sounds of Lawrence Welk drifted from the front room where my uncles Cecil and Teddy were playing pinocle (I'm not sure of the spelling).

Several years later when I came back to the US after spending time living in Europe I settled in coastal Maine in a small town. I had no relatives or family to speak of on this side of the US and the hubby was still back in the UK whilst we worked on immigrating him over to this side of the pond. But I was almost immediately embraced by the folks in my new town...a place I'd spent countless hours vacationing in as a child.

It seemed like everyone went out of their way to make me feel at home. I couldn't have asked for better neighbours and eventual friends. There were several nights when we'd all sit around outside near the shore's edge and talk, laugh and watch our children play. It brought back memories of those days from my youth with the old dutch aunts and uncles.

Then, once the hubby was finally immigrated over, we decided to buy a home of our own. The exhoribitant cost of living on the water precluded us from buying in my new town. So we moved a few miles north.

To make a long story short...whilst we love being homeowners we hate the town we live in. There is no sense of community here. We don't know any of our neighbours despite repeated attempts to get to know them, and to add insult to injury, the school system sucks!

Once we've remodeled the kitchen, repainted the rooms that need it, and taken care of some landscaping we'll be putting the house on the market and heading back south to "home." I want the little imp to grow up with a sense of community and knowing who her neighbours are. And I want my older kids to come home on college breaks to a place they love as well and maybe even eventually, set down roots in.

Great post, it brought back such wonderful childhood memories.

MommyTime said...

Auds, I'm so glad you came back and left such a great comment. And I do hope you get back to your "home" town which sounds wonderful and like a perfect place to live.

Mrs F and CBW and Amy, I'm so very very happy to know that such places still exist and are making people happy. Truly.

Foolery, I can't wait to see what comes of this. Not that I don't love the hilarity. But I look forward to seeing another side of you too. I'm blushing at your words, but oh so glad to know you are feeling the inspiration strike.

Angela at mommy bytes said...

There was an awesome NPR story on porches that you might find interesting.

 

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