PHOTO: Janis Christie/Getty Images
The old house has started to fade inside my mind. I try to remember it but the walls are mostly blank, the hallways filled with shadow. The fights, hugs, prayers, and curses that occurred there still linger in my memory, but the wooden boxes that held those things, the rooms my paternal grandparents once shared with their great extended family, have lost form. I think it was painted white, that house. It seems like it was white.
But the porch, now...I still see the porch. The last time I stood upon it I was 6 years old, but I still see the nail heads in the weathered pine, still hear the squeal of the rocker pressing the planks, still see tiny comets arc across the air when somebody flicked the glowing nub of a Pall Mall over the rail and into the night.
I remember that it was wide and deep, as high off the ground as a man is tall. The planks, once painted, were worn down to a bare, ancient gray by rain and sun, and by a few billion brogans, black wingtips, and scandalous high-heeled shoes. But it was built to stand until the Rapture, and maybe a little while beyond.
They say a kitchen is the heart of a house, but I believe the porch is its soul. From the very steps, you knew if you were welcome or not, knew everything you needed to know about the people inside. My grandmother Velma welcomed the whole world there on those boards, except for a few insurance men and anyone with a pamphlet. Usually, she welcomed them with a saucer of blackberry cobbler, or banana pudding, or a plate of the best meatloaf this world has ever known. My grandfather Bobby, if it was a weekend and the world had not run out of whiskey, sometimes welcomed visitors with something more, but that is another story.
The porch was always cool, as if summer stopped at that first step. The house was like a furnace in the hot months, and the porch, perched in the foothills of the Alabama highland, was a cool oasis in the heat. There was no electric light on the porch, no bright bulb to draw insects or add to the heat. Porches were for talking, and rocking babies, and cutting okra and snapping beans and telling lies. A body did not need a lot of light for that, and—if the lying got out of hand—the darker the better.
I remember its scent, an ambrosia of black coffee mixing in the wind with the sweet smell of canned milk, and honeysuckle, and snuff. It made the babies sneeze. In the evening, the children would retreat beneath the porch to be away from their mamas and daddies but still not quite away, to be with them and yet not right with them, which is a delicious thing that only a child really understands. We convened there to whisper, pinch, fuss, eavesdrop, and enjoy the dark, our heads filled with ghost stories and our fists wrapped around our broken-bladed pocket knives. But then a screech owl would split the night, or a cousin would mutter, "I wonder if there's snakes down here," and we would come pouring from around the pylons and up the steps.
I don't see people on porches much anymore. I guess they just stopped building them after air-conditioning, and television. I see people sitting around on patios, but it is not the same. But people seem to like them. As the late writer Lewis Grizzard once wrote, it is hard to get drunk and fall off a backyard.
Like most people, I have a dream house under construction in my head. The plans shift and reform and sometimes I even scratch out a few lines with pencil on a legal pad, but I always tear it up and start over. I have been building it all my life, slow evening after slow evening. If I had worked with bricks and lumber instead of dreams and paper, I would be sitting about 19 stories high by now. Maybe I should find a good architect. Or maybe I should just get one last, clean sheet of paper, and start with a porch. I already have one in mind.