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Front Porches of Yesteryear
by Catherine C. Brooks

     When was the last time you saw your neighbors sitting on their open front porch? While writing my book concerning post offices and community life in Mathews County in bygone days, the front porch became a picture in my mind. Screened or not, the front porch had rockers, often a glider, other chairs and perhaps a swing.

     As late as the 1960s, they were in use, but since most have slowly disappeared. Many are enclosed with glass or just used as an entrance to the house.

     We had a wrap-around front porch on my parents’ house with two entrances to the hall. The shaded side, making an inward L-turn and down the long section, around the next outside L-turn, just before the door facing the driveway, was screened. The 14 foot unscreened section, where the afternoon sun baked anyone or anything in summer, sat bare—only the door to the screened porch and the front door to the house were important once up the steps. On the northwest corner of that open section, snow piled in a blizzard or heavy snowstorm. So we had to clear a pathway to the steps.But the screened section had a porch swing on the shorter section of the L for many years. Later Momma removed it for a rocker. A glider sat in the corner. 
Keeping past the hall door, a wicker rocker and wicker chair sat on either side of a small table. A wicker fernery filled with potted plants sat across the porch up against the screen. It was truly an outdoor living room with humming birds nesting in the climbing rose bush and scrubs. They came out to suck nectar from blooms mornings and afternoons. Other small-song birds opted to hop from branch to branch of the shrubbery, eating insects and any berries before they flew into the maple tree to serenade us. The porch made a tranquil setting, especially in the mornings before the sun’s direct rays peeped through the greenery. Daddy enjoyed entertaining his Uncle John Callis and others mornings during his last few years. He had been unable to work after radiation treatments and was completely disabled his last summer.

     On the screened section of the porch is where Kirby and I first kissed. In those days, the reserved men didn’t kiss until they knew the girl would become his wife. It is where in August 1944 Kirby said, “Let me tell you goodbye here. Tomorrow Mama and Daddy will be with us so I can’t do it,” showing how shy he was. As he held me in his arms for minutes, we didn’t know his future. So we just enjoyed the moment that would be dear to each of us in the next 18 months while he served in the Pacific. But on his return in March of 1946, I didn’t take time to go the long way through the screened area of the porch. I met him on the open porch just outside the main front door. We hugged and kissed without saying a word for a few moments.

     Our family used that screened area, the larger section of the porch both night and day. On hot summer nights, sleeping on the second floor was unbearable except in one room. My sister and I occupied that after Momma refurbished it to usable condition the year I had my 12th birthday. It had cross ventilation with a window facing the east and another the west—the way houses were built in the mid-nineteenth century. If a breathe of air moved, we felt it. We would sleep at the foot of the bed so our faces cooled first. On those hot nights, Daddy slept on the glider on the front porch. We had a screened side porch next to the dining room with a day bed.Momma slept there. But before the room was refurbished, Lou and I had pallets in the dining room floor between two doors—one on the north and the other on the south.Hard beds for sure!

     In those days we didn’t have electricity in the outlying areas of Mathews.Then electric service finally became available about 1940. Wiring a 10-room house took all Daddy could afford with pull chain overhead light fixtures in the bedrooms, and one light with switches in each of the kitchen, the dining room and the living room. The electrician put two receptacles in each room at the time. We got appliances one at the time with an electric refrigerator the first on the list. However, a fan was the last thing on our minds until Momma had to go to the hospital in August 1946. Daddy found her not only in pain, but practically melting from the intense heat on his first visit.So he went shopping for a small fan, which she brought home with her.They never had anything but “Grace’s fan” before they died: Daddy at age 50 in 1953, and Momma at age 49 in 1955. Yet, the open front porch filled the need for much needed ventilation.With the side door to the hall and all windows open, the air drew through the large rooms to the back door and side windows in the living area. Seldom do I remember that we even needed a fan. The house sat not only in an open space, but a cove from Billups Creek made up back of the house. Thus, we enjoyed breezes that bays and creeks bring.

     In 1933, we lived with Grandpa and Granny Callis. Their front porch, the width of the house, had no screening, but four rockers sat there for all to enjoy from late May until early October.Few days passed without company after supper unless rain poured. They had more close neighbors and less farmland than down Field Neck, where our place had been leased for a year. After the chairs filled, one or two people sat sideways on the edge of the porch.We children sat wherever there was a space—Lou in Daddy’s or Momma’s lap, or if too hot at their feet. I’d sit on the porch edge with the others. If Miss Della Callis walked over, her daughter, Helen, came with her. Though she was 18 months older than me, we were great friends. So if the neighborhood news wasn’t interesting to us, we’d go somewhere else to play or talk, letting the older folks enjoy their sit after a hard days work.Sometimes we’d chase lighting bugs, placing them in a jar to watch for a time. But we let them lose before Helen went home.

     Miss Flora Belle Forrest lived down a path in the back of Grandpa’s house so she came frequently.Miss Anna Miles lived across the road and up a lane back in the woods—we enjoyed her and Mr. Jim too when he came. All of these women were married, but if we didn’t call them “Miss,” we were scolded. It denoted respect for our elders. We barely knew their last names so didn’t say Mrs. So and So except to strangers. After an hour’s visit, it’d be time for the visitors to go home, and we went in the house to outwit the mosquitoes.
I visited with Momma or both of my parents on others front porches both days and nights. Granddaddy Richardson lived in Hampton, and he had two rockers on his front porch—one for Granny and his. A straight chair or two was brought out of the house when they had visitors. Granny always sat in one of them. His last house had an open-front porch. Many of the neighbor men sat on the edge of the porch to chat a few minutes on their way home or going to another neighbor’s place.No one worried about anyone stealing the chairs back through the 1960s. When the weather became too cool to use the porch, they turned the rockers up against the house to protect the seats and backs.

     When my husband and I married soon after his discharge from the service, we lived with my parents for two years. He was apprenticing in cabinet making and upholstery so income wasn’t what we had hoped. After his maternal grandparents gave us two acres of land on which to build a house, we had trees that Daddy gave us sawed for part of the lumber for the house we wanted to build. It was then that Kirby realized we should build a garage for storing supplies as we purchased them. To shorten a long story, he had built a bit larger than the standard garage with a separate room on the back for a trailer he had made at his workplace for hauling. We had an electrician wire the building, having decided we’d live in the garage temporarily. We finished the interior, dividing it into a kitchen, tiny bathroom, living room and bedroom. There was no front porch, and I haven’t enjoyed one since.You see the house that we had planned never materialized.In fact, when time came we could build it, we didn’t even care for our youthful fancy. A baby came the year after we moved so we enjoyed each day and didn’t worry that our house had been intended for a garage.

     Air conditioning and television has changed society’s lifestyles. Instead of gathering to get the neighborhood news, we stay inside.Today’s children miss the great togetherness I knew as a child

©2004 Catherine C. Brooks All rights reserved. Contact Catherine C. Brooks at 

 


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