Memories From a Porch
Sam Burnham, Curator
Y'all, I gotta tell you, I read the most splendid Twitter thread recently. Typically, if you are looking for joy, happiness, and beauty, Twitter is not the first place to look for it. But I found one of the exceptions. The thread was written by a good Southerner who goes by the handle @NoJesuitTricks. He is well credentialed as a Southern gentleman. He's a gifted writer and storyteller, his faith is rooted in the South's original tradition, his accent is the standard that Hollywood should hold for any actors portraying Southerners, and, most importantly, his rearing substantially took place on a porch.
His story drove me back to my own porch. I've just taken a new home and I am toying with plans for what all to do with the porch. Needless to say, I plan on porch sitting at all hours - thinking, reading, writing, and doing many of the other things he mentioned in the thread.
The discussion of porches takes me back to my grandparents' farm in Central Florida. Ginny and Pawpaw had a porch that spread across the front of their cabin. The porch gave a commanding view of the property. Your average city person might see a whole bunch of nothing. A really ambitious real estate developer might see potential. Looking back, I see perfection.
The porch steps gave way to a well-kept lawn. The lawn transitioned into a pasture that that flowed with the breeze. In the distance, barely visible from the rocking chairs, was the road. The road was unpaved. It was a graded and packed ribbon of crushed Florida limestone that could absorb the blazing heat and the pouring rain with equal tenacity. On each side of the pasture stood a border of live oaks, each one splendidly adorned with its own complement of Spanish moss. Just beneath the tree line to the right ran the driveway. The driveway consisted of two tracks of white sand, the indigenous subsoil of the state, divided by a track of grass. Oak roots served as speed bumps allowing anyone on the porch a few minutes to prepare accordingly for welcome or unwelcome arrivals. You could see any such arrivals from the porch. You could also see my uncle's place. He and his family had taken up a homestead about halfway up the driveway in a patch of oaks beside the pasture. That meant at least one cousin was never far away.
In this magical square, the porch was central. You could just sit and rock while watching the birds and other wildlife that thrived on the cornucopia the pasture provided. You could take a respite from the sun in the shade. You could devise all manner of adventures of varying levels of advisability.
Or, one of the best things to do on the porch, you could watch an approaching storm. It was a given, especially in the summer, that it was going to rain about 3 o'clock every afternoon. You knew that midafternoon was not the time to venture down to the mailbox. The storm was usually short and not particularly severe, but you were going to get hammered if you got caught out in the open. The place to be was in a rocking chair as the wind whipped the grasses up and then the deluge beat it back down. You could see it starting down at the road and advancing towards the porch. This wall of water was more of a tidal wave than a downpour The cool breeze would arrive as strong as if you were laying with your head on the air conditioning vent. And then the rain was upon you. Just a few feet in front of you it was coming a toad strangler but you were high and dry under the cover of the porch. It was glorious.
I think the best times on the porch were the fish fries. Dining al fresco with people you didn't get to see nearly often as you would like. I remember sitting there, staring at my plate of fish, grits, and hush puppies pondering two questions: 1) Is this a blue gill, a warmouth, or a speckled perch? & 2) Who caught this fish, me, my brother, or my Uncle Billy? And then I would shrug and dig in.
Fish fry days were long. They would begin in the predawn darkness in a Ford pickup towing a boat towards Orange Lake. My brother Danny and my Uncle Billy were the core of the operation. Sometimes Uncle Bobby would meet us at the fish camp and we would put the boat in the water. You were going to sit in the boat with a cane pole in hand and a line in the water for an hour. It didn't matter what you tried. no fish were ever caught in the first hour. Call it the tribute you have to pay The Lady of that particular lake before she allowed you access to its abundance. Then, someone would catch a fish and the floodgates were opened. We'd sling fish for an hour or two, return to camp to load the boat and clean the fish and then hightail it back to the porch. Cousins were coming, and plenty of them.
Those long days usually ended with games of tag and other fun for hours after the Florida sunshine stopped force-feeding the St, Augustine grass. The adults had completely commandeered the porch by that time and we were typically ok with that. The stars were out, as were the lightning bugs. We had plenty to do.
Time moves on. Things change. The farm was sold years ago but the memories remain. All those kids are grown now and have their own kids. We don't see each other as much as we like. But the connections were made on and around that porch sustain us to this day and they set the standard for relationships, and porches for that matter, to this day.
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Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire