It was a letter from Betty in Central New York that got me thinking.
Betty was thinking as well, I guess; and thinking that when you’re of a “certain age,” it generally leads to reminiscing. God I hate that expression — of a certain age. No one’s yet told me what the “certain age” is.
You can tell Betty’s of “a certain age” because she wrote a letter. Not on a computer. Not contained within an email. No texting here, no sir. She sat down, put pen to paper and hand-wrote … two sides, no less. Can you imagine telling a kid today they had to sit down and actually write a letter by hand. Would they even know how?
Betty’s letter began with growing up in West Philly, where she lived with her family in three different houses. Each of those houses had a front porch. Later on, the family moved to central Pennsylvania, where over the years she lived in four different houses; and once again, each had a front porch. Today, Betty observes sadly, there aren’t too many front porches left.
I got thinking about her letter and started looking around. Most older homes have them, but newer construction seems to favor the deck; and most decks are around back. More private, so the neighbors can’t see what you’re doing. Years ago when you had a front porch, your neighbors were on them all the time! Visiting, stopping by for a cup of coffee or a beer; even if it were only a quick “hello” and a friendly smile, they spent a few minutes on your porch.
There’s nothing wrong with a deck, but it just doesn’t provide the warmth and cache of a front porch. In historic architecture, the front was an important part of house because it served as a kind of transition between the public space of the sidewalk and the private space of a home’s interior. It was a kind of buffer zone where you felt safe to sit, but people passing by could still speak to you. The porch protected you from both snowy cold and blazing sun in that it served as a tempered version of the outdoors, yet meant to be sat upon to observe all weather conditions.
Tract housing today sports a lot of fake porches, with no real room for chairs … or neighbors … and therein lies a sad fact. We have become quite insular, very private indeed. Many of us don’t even know our neighbors; yet we will think nothing of Instagramming pictures of the huge shrimp dish we had while on vacation or sharing every single emotion we have with virtual strangers on Facebook. But when was the last time we sat down and just talked with the people next door, the way our parents and grandparents did?
Betty writes that “porches have a peculiar tendency to draw people together,” and she’s correct. In the summer, she remembers, it might serve as a playground for children when it was raining, or a place to sit and cool off before bedtime. Even in winter you’d “wrap your baby like a mummy,” but that child would still get the benefit of some fresh air.
Betty remembers whole families fairly “lived” on their porches years ago. “Now,” she regrets, “we keep our pets and kids locked in and up for safety’s sake. Do you ever see kids playing the street or roads any more — kick the can or hide and seek?”
Those simple pleasures and made-up games without one iota’s worth of expense are long gone. Today’s kids are stuck in front of screens, fixated on video games that cost a small fortune and cable plans that tie them to the inside of the home watching nothing on 500+ channels.
Betty believes that “if you have a porch, you are blessed … use it summer and winter, the whole year. Get to know your neighbors.”
Here in our little part of the world, Mary Jane DiMaio started an annual event in 1993 called Neighbor Day, a time to come downtown, greet folks you already know, meet some ones you didn’t know till now, and to then hold hands in a gesture of union and diversity. It’s a wonderful idea, but it’s just one day. Then everyone goes home.
Perhaps if they have a porch they could invite some neighbors over to share a lemonade, because friendship should never be just one day.
Rona Mann has been a freelance writer for The Sun for 17 years, including her “In Their Shoes” features. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 401-539-7762.