How appropriate is it to share today, a few days after summer solstice and a few days after our loss of writer friend Nancy Fletcher-Blume, her story about Southern front porches. Nancy loved her own front porch, loved to sit there early mornings with coffee and listen to the wind blow through the bamboo. She has often talked about the other front porches of her life. This personal essay was published in Gathering: Writers of Williamson County in 2009.
Secrets of Southern Front Porches
Secrets. Dreams. Joys. Heartbreaks. Could a stranger passing by, quickly glancing, but know what drama, what memories, what portraits are painted on our simple front porches as families, close friends, and neighbors sit rocking, whiling away the lazy days and evenings of hot Southern summers.
In the diary of my life, more secrets have been divulged, more celebrations of great joy, and the too-often heart-wrenching of a grief shared on porches than any other place in our homes.
My earliest memories are of standing in the first breath of springtime, watching my mother as she carefully painted the wooden floor of our large sitting porch. Dipping the brush down into the paint can, methodically painting each board with long strokes of “Battleship Gray,” she told me this was the color—when I had asked for red—that my daddy always painted the porch. Daddy was somewhere in the Pacific.
Pots of fiery-red geraniums soon filled this porch, along with snow-white painted rocking chairs with fluffy cotton cushions that my grandmother made. She kept a “ragg” bag of scraps from alterations she did for several family members, and its contents would remind me of my never-ending supply of cousins, aunts, and sometimes even an uncle, as I recognized these scraps on the cushions. My grandmother gave no thought to matching. She just sewed. And so we sat and rocked on kaleidoscopes of color.
All through the long summer afternoons and evenings, the women on our street would gather, sitting and rocking on this colorful porch, drinking pitchers of ice tea filled with the petals of my grandmother’s orange nasturtiums and sprigs of mint grown in the wet earth behind our wellhouse.
The children sat on the floor by my grandmother and our mothers. Their conversations were always about flowers, our school clothes, and recipes. But these conversations took on a different twist when children were not around. Sent inside to play with paper dolls so adults could talk, I would sometimes go out the back door and slip around to one of my favorite hiding places—behind the huge blue and purple hydrangea bushes alongside our porch—where I would secretly listen. They spoke in low voices of rationing stamps, censored mail, war bonds, someone’s brother, son, or husband being brought back from “somewhere” in Italy, and of a new star hanging in the window of another neighbor’s home.
Once—it was a July day filled with humid, heavy afternoon showers—we sat on the porch with several neighbors, and a lady who had not visited before ran up the paved walk. Grandmother had called out to her, asking her to sit awhile until the rain was over. She sat down on the gray, wooden floor beside me, declining the offer of a chair. I watched as she smoothed her thin, wet, purple skirt, while drops of water trickled slowly down her legs. She patted my hand, smiling, and asked if I liked her purple “broomstick” skirt. I immediately wanted one just like it and to have her for a friend. My grandmother told me later on when I asked about the skirt that the word and custom were brought into our country by the slaves, as they would “jump the broom” to seal their vows because the laws of our land did not allow them to marry.
Several of the neighbors had brought letters from overseas to share, and after one or two were read, this new lady, shaking her skirt and getting up off the floor to leave, explained she was not much for letter-writing and guessed “he” would just have to wait for home news. As she walked away, I remember the quiet, except for the slow dripping of water running down the gutters.
One of the neighbor ladies broke the silence, saying that it was such a shame, him being away and all that, the uncles coming and going, sometimes leaving early in the mornings. I thought that so strange. Uncles? My uncle, being my mother’s baby brother, came almost every Saturday morning around noon, fixed anything that needed fixing, and then sat at lunch with my mother, grandmother, and me. I never saw my new friend again. It was later said on our porch that she just up and moved away.
One by one, all the men on our street came home, and their voices would blend deep into the night as porches again filled on those hot summers. Conversations were different. I watched as my daddy would pull my mother’s rocking chair closer, his hand reaching, touching her auburn hair. Then pulling me close, he would tell us he always somehow knew he’d come back home to his girls. He also told my mother and me, one late evening, that he’d never put his feet in ocean water again. He did not.
Conversations on our porch now were all about the GI Bill, which made it possible for my daddy to return to school, taking night classes while working in the daytime. He also told us that he now could get a VA loan, which was available for servicemen and women, and we could soon get a larger house.
We moved early the following year to a new subdivision. This house had a large porch, and it did not take long for my mother and daddy to create beauty there. The floors were painted Battleship Gray, and white banisters were filled with pots of blood-red geraniums, baby-pink petunias, and my grandmother’s ever-blooming array of gypsy-colored cushions.
We made new friends and neighbors, as folks walking by were greeted and asked to come and “sit a spell.” By the end of that summer, I knew almost everyone in the neighborhood and was now included in more of the adult conversations.
It was on this porch where I stood poised for my mother to take a Kodak picture of me wearing my first long gown. It was baby blue, for my music recital. My parents had sat on the porch listening as I sat at the living-room piano, practicing over and over “The Triumphal March” from Aida. My daddy told me that my hard work had paid off, as my teacher was so happy with the performance that she invited me to play for the ladies at one of the monthly DAR meetings.
Standing on the steps of this porch in a mid-April’s drizzling rain, I received my first sweet kiss from an early teen crush. On the long summer nights that followed and on into the fall, I would sit at night with my girlfriends, whispering about first kisses, clothes, and the taste of our Tangee lipsticks. On this porch, we vowed to keep these secrets and hold our friendships forever. But these conversations took on a different twist when adults came out and joined us.
I also had my first heartbreak standing on the steps of this porch. The mother of one of my best friends sat several afternoons, rocking and speaking quietly with my mother. I found them wiping away tears, and when I asked about my friend, I was told that she had gone away to live with her aunt for a while. She had left and not told me goodbye.
A few years later, on an early June’s night, the boy I would eventually marry sat beside me in our porch rockers and told of his love for me. It was on this porch, beside a pot filled with red geraniums, that I left a note for my mother and daddy. I crossed the state line into Georgia and married my young love. It was on a Sunday night, while others were in church. I was fourteen years old.
For the first time in my life I had to find my own place of comfort on a different porch. This porch, deep in the dense kudzu gullies of South Carolina up-country, was filled with painted dark-green rockers, lush flowering plants, and heavy hanging purple wisteria vines that flowed up and over the roof of this rambling white farmhouse. Porch conversations here were different and foreign to me. They were about crops, weather, seining for fish, and exciting tales of the hunt. Some evening conversations were simply speculative, being about the comings and goings of cars and trucks that could be seen and heard going up the drives of neighboring farms.
There is something magical in going back home to your old porch, the porch of your parents, one that has heard and kept a young girl’s secrets. On a late summer’s evening, Grandmother and I sat rocking, breathing the heavy sweet scent of August lilies, talking of her “ragg-muffin” cotton cushions and “Now, in my day . . . .” I took her hand, telling her my new secret of the tiny life I carried. It was a first for this porch.
On a cold and bitter March day, my parents’ gray porch stood stark and empty of all its woven magic of rockers and colorful flowers. I hugged the last of my cousins, aunts, and uncles as they left for their homes after we had shed our tears, shared our stories, and divided the “ragg” cushions. We had said goodbye to Grandmother. My first son was born ten days later.
Over the years, our little family grew to three children, all boys. Our lives changed, but the porches did not. I was always drawn down to the wisteria-covered porch and the love of my husband’s large family. Many late Sunday afternoons, my husband and I would sit with his parents, brothers, and their spouses, talking of the unrest and times.
It was the Sixties, and it seemed to me that the whole world was shifting, quickly, a world for which I was not ready. I was privy to hearing sad and terrible things on this porch, as conversations took on much deeper, painful, and many-layered twists.
Our innocent children played outside, running free in the heat of late summer afternoons, while we sat fanning, listening, drinking ice tea on this flowered, vine-covered porch. The males of the family were speaking in low voices, repeating stories they had heard of Night Riders, the Klan, bloody beatings, students watered down with hoses and shot. These porch conversations of Montgomery and Selma, now part of history, will forever remain with me.
On one Sunday afternoon, the shaded porch was crowded with family. Most of the conversation that day never strayed far from the horror of more killings in the small low-country town of Orangeburg, South Carolina. The newspapers carried this story and told of students being shot in the soles of their feet as they lay dead in the street. This would later come to be known as the Orangeburg Massacre.
I felt fear on this porch for the first time, as we had both FBI and state troopers in our family, all living in low-country South Carolina towns. My mother-in-law and I went to the family church on a Wednesday night, where she said a prayer for her sons that they would not be called in to go to these places, not be a part of this terrible racial violence. I realized more and more that my safe world of the porch had expanded and gone somewhere I did not want to go.
Late one August evening, a male member of the family found me sitting alone rocking. He told me he was leaving to live in another place several states away. He knew other family members would not understand. He told me he had to be true to himself and had to live his life in a different way—a way that could never be discussed by family, in polite conversation. At that time I was innocent of his reasons, but I knew his confiding in me should be a secret, well guarded.
A few years later, my husband, three sons, and I moved to Tennessee for a job. The new house had a very small front stoop, so we usually retreated to a large back patio for our deep conversations. Sometimes I would try to capture the feel of “porch” as I planted red geraniums in pots, and occasionally sat on the steps of the small stoop. We made new friends, and when they came, we stood in the yard talking or invited them to the back patio, or inside. It just wasn’t the same.
The last week of May that year was sunny and bright. Saturday morning I sat on the stoop for a few minutes, missing my porch in South Carolina and all its flowers, but then left to do errands, leaving my family behind for fun things they had planned.
When I returned, driving down my street and turning into my driveway, I saw two of my friends standing on my small front stoop. I got out of my car and walked to them. They spoke, and my world was changed forever. We lost our youngest son that morning. He was eight years old. I have very deep, gray memories of me sitting on the steps of that stoop, rocking back and forth for a long time until they told me it was time to go inside.
Three days later we returned to the family cemetery, and the South Carolina home and porch of my childhood. Sitting in rockers on the familiar, brightly colored porch, were my mother, daddy, and the dark, row-braided woman who had helped raise my children. She had rocked our babies on this porch. She got to me first.
Many years and many porches later, after the recent heartbreaking loss of my beloved middle son, I sit on a porch here in Tennessee, on this day, his fiftieth birthday. It is a peaceful porch, filled with beautiful brown wicker, wonderfully fat cushions, ceiling fans, and dark jungle-green potted plants and trees. It is a porch where music filters softly through hidden speakers, along with the sound of water flowing over rocks. But I am not alone on this day in late April. I am with my eldest son. And we both remember, without saying.
Our deepest conversation is unspoken. This day should have held laughter, cake, and candles. Instead we sit sipping on Scotch, listening to all of my son’s favorite songs, and talk of past porches, long-gone families, tales of the hunt, until way into the dark night.
I have traveled back several times to the old porches of my South Carolina homes. The deserted yards are now tangled and overgrown, the thick wisteria vines gnarled and black. Where tulips grew, there is only brown earth. The towering magnolia tree, which gave children places to climb and shaded the porch for lifetimes, still has hidden, deep and high in its branches, the carved initials of our family’s young boys.
All of the voices have long since gone from these porches, and they will forever hold their silence and secrets.