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Hamptons Life

Jul 14, 2017 4:44 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Porches Are An American Staple

Jul 17, 2017 10:24 AM

“Your father enjoyed talking with you last night on the porch,” my mother remarked. Always perceptive, but somewhat cautious, Mother sensed that the 16-year freeze between her husband and her youngest son had suddenly shown a climactic shift toward a warming between a father and son whose orbits had never been quite aligned. On that darkening Michigan porch, overlooking a mirrored lake, my father, sitting in a rocker sipping his scotch, and me, on the porch swing, staring straight ahead, somehow managed to finally talk.

On that quiet, dark evening, on that same porch, my father told me that at the age of 11, at his father’s untimely death, he knew he would have to become the man of the house, sheltering his baby sister and his shattered mother.

And it was on the porch that night that I finally saw my father, though not from looking at him. The calming sways of the swing and rocker, with us both staring out at the mesmerizing view, allowed us to acknowledge that the thaw had melted into a new respect for each other.

The porch is as American as blueberry pie on the Fourth of July. A phenomenon that stretches from the Adirondacks to the Louisiana bayous. Perhaps as old as prehistoric times, where an outcropping ledge overhung the cave’s entrance, the porch is more than an architectural addendum, it is a lifestyle.

The 18th century saw the porch as a small rear entrance, a vestibule, enclosed and covered. But by their sociable nature, Americans swung it around to the front of the house, where not only families would gather but also broadcast an invitation for communal bantering.

In our large screened-in porch, overlooking the birch forest through which we saw the shimmering lake, were placed not only the rocking porch sofa, which sawed its way back-and-forth on rusty runners, but also an assortment of “Kennedy” rockers—whose simple wooden frames were strung with tightly woven rattan backs.

My mother slipcovered everything with a floral print car cloth, a dimpled kind of spongy fabric. In the corner was the card table, on top of which my grandmother, sweetly powdered with a hoarse laugh, taught us to play card games like samba, canasta, gin, fish and hearts. On another card table sat the jigsaw puzzle, a cut out cardboard affair with the framed edge usually complete and, of course, a huge pile of other shapely pieces waiting for patient participants.

Next to the self-slamming screen door, whose smacking sound is still etched in my aural memory, stood an elaborate carved white table. Our weekly foul weather jaunt to Mrs. Pontius’s flower shop scored two dozen gladiolus. Mom arranged these in a stiff peacock spray. Daily and ritually, she would pinch off the lower spent blossoms working her way up the ladder of blooms. We lived out our summer days on that porch. Early in the morning, my brother Tom would come down and just slowly swing back and forth on the sofa listening to the loons. I couldn’t ever figure out what he was thinking, but I know he was thinking.

Fishing rods were mounted horizontally on the wall above the bar cart, and taken down practically every day, and carefully replaced at the end of the day.

And of course there was the bar cart with a large assortment of dazzlingly colorful bottles glistening in the sun. At 4 o’clock the ladies arrived dressed in their pretty summer dresses. In a cloud of perfume, the ladies poured themselves iced highballs of clear liquids and 7-Up. Soon after, Dad’s buddies, straight from the golf course, stomped up the wooden stairs, heading straight for the cart.

Grown-ups hour would begin or as my brother Ridge would always say, “grown-up sour,” because kids were never allowed to join in. Voices grew louder and louder, guffaws and shrill laughs followed until the adults were called in to dinner.

Then we boys took over the porch because we had already been fed our hot dogs. We were competitive, and with lots of board games to wrestle over we could occupy ourselves till the parents, relatives and friends stumbled back out. No matter how many guests there were, everyone managed to crowd onto the porch, find a spot and settle in for the late summer evening. As the sun began to set beyond the porch, long stories emerged from the assembled group. Most were funny, some incredible, but none were boring. The waning light seemed to loosen the lips and relax the spirit.

When I set about creating our own porch, I made sure to include rockers, a swing, a card table, and a bar cart. These were essentials from my own personal summer nostalgia. Screens would help, but fans and a few citronella candles do about the same trick. The only thing I miss is the slamming of that screen door!

More than nostalgia, Paul and I gravitate toward our porch, living out most of our late spring, summer and early fall evenings. There we find ourselves reconnecting after a long work week, and deeply breathing in the ocean air. My Michigan porch, where I discovered my father in the calm of a midsummer evening will always be my inspiration and of course, I thank my father for that.

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