There was a time when almost every house had a front porch, a place where family and friends would gather just to sit and relax and watch the world go by. People didn’t need an official “night out” to shout a greeting or wave at neighbors. They’d simply gather in the morning with their cups of coffee to watch the children scurrying off to school or in the evenings with a cool drink just to enjoy the glory of day’s end. It’s rare to see homes being built with porches in the front anymore. Instead we design our living spaces for ultimate privacy by placing our outdoor retreats in back of our homes where we are hidden from the rest of the world. Perhaps it is just one more sign of the times when we often feel isolated and unsure of our places in the big picture.
Visits to my paternal grandparents always included time spent on their expansive front porches which my grandfather enhanced with screen to keep the bugs out and to insure that even when the mosquitoes were having a roaring good time, we’d be enjoying ourselves as well without worrying about getting bitten. My grandparents always had the area furnished like an additional living room with a sofa like glider, rocking chairs and lots of extra seating. Grandma made sure that we had an endless supply of cool drinks and Grandpa kept a big fan in perfect running order to provide us with comfort. We’d join in the greetings of neighbors who passed by while on their walks and sometimes climbed up the steps to the house to spend a few extra minutes to find out how everyone was doing. We watched the birds during the day and fireflies at night, and talked of people, events and ideas. Somehow the time spent on their front porch always made me feel safe, content, proud and loved.
My maternal grandmother had a front porch as well. Hers was not covered or enclosed which was actually preferable to all of us cousins who gathered there every Friday evening while our parents played poker inside a tiny room so filled with smoke that it made us gag. We enjoyed the freedom and adventure of the outside with that porch serving as home base for the crazy games that we invented for our entertainment. Sometimes my grandmother would quietly sit in our midst, but because she rarely spoke it never occurred to us that she may have been watching over us. We just thought that she was escaping the raucous conversations of her children and enjoying the cleaner air on her porch.
None of my homes either as a child or an adult have boasted a front porch. I suppose that trend lost its charm for builders sometime in the middle of the twentieth century. We hosted our gatherings in our backyard where we might enjoy more privacy without interruption. The front of the house was reserved for coming and going and quick waves of the hand at our neighbors. Only once in awhile would we bring our lawn chairs to the front yard to join adventurous folks who decided to resurrect the old ways of relaxing together after long days of labor. I so enjoyed those sojourns with the Halls and the Turners and the Mayfields on somebody’s lawn when we would watch the children playing and laugh as our cares drifted away.
I rarely see people gathering in front of their homes anymore. Such enjoyment has in many ways become a thing of the past. Perhaps we are too rushed or too private or too wary of being on display. Maybe we don’t want to fight the heat or mosquitoes. For whatever reason we mostly stay enclosed in our own private worlds and seem to think it necessary to wait for special invitations to meet up with our neighbors. We know that there is life inside the homes on our street but it is only the passing of cars from the garages that alerts us to that fact. The old ways of lounging together outside on a summer’s eve are mostly the domain of the past.
Now my husband and I sit around the table on our backyard patio listening to the cooing of the doves and sounds of the people around their swimming pools or on their trampolines. Their dogs bark at us as we survey our garden and once in a great while a voice from behind the fence will ask us to retrieve a wayward ball that has found its way onto our space. Most of the time our contact is minimal and we get the idea that everyone prefers it that way.
My father-in-law has a lovely wrap around front porch at his house that was originally built in the early days of the twentieth century when such a feature was all the rage. He rarely sits out front preferring the deck in the back of the house instead. When I visit I imagine festooning the front porch with sumptuous ferns and plants. I think of placing a small table with chairs out there where one might enjoy a meal or a cup of morning coffee while watching the passersby. I suppose that I would wear out the swing that my husband and his best friend once hung so that my mother-in-law would always have a place to sit. I’d wring out all of the enjoyment that the front porch was intended to provide. Sadly I’m not sure that I would see much because I rarely observe anyone passing by whenever I go to visit. It seems that even those with the wherewithal to enjoy the neighborhood from the front don’t bother to do so anymore.
Front porches seem to have become a thing history, a pleasant memory of bygone days when the windows were open and the doors were unlocked. A neighbor need only shout a greeting from the sidewalk to be invited to come sit awhile. Everyone knew everyone else and there was an unspoken duty to watch over the children as they played. We were open and unconcerned with things like political differences. The whole neighborhood was one great big happy family. Along the way our televisions and phones and air conditioners lured us inside and pushed us at the back of the house. Maybe it’s time that we come back out to the front.