Thursday, January 2, 2014

Life on the Porch

"I keep my Christmas lights out on my front porch all year long,
And I know all the words to every Charlie Daniels song."
-- Gretchen Wilson

Panera can be a great place to write, to stop between bites of your cinnamon crunch bagel and put down a few thoughts, and this morning is no different.  As I look out from my window seat at the rain coming down on this chilly post-holiday January morning, the second day of this new year, I'm reminded that in better weather, the patio out there is full of people catching up on life.  Patios, decks, and porches are like that -- not only do they provide real-life, tangible chat forums, but they draw you out and make you stop for a while to contemplate the true meaning of the universe; sometimes, they just help you figure out some specific thing that's rattling around in your head, and in so doing, they enrich life just a bit...well, maybe more than just a bit.

I am old enough to remember the South in the days before every house and commercial structure had central air conditioning, days when we relied on window fans, handheld paper fans, and the coming of twilight to cool us down.  Many houses in those days were built with wraparound porches or at the very least, front porches which extended the width of the house.  They were often painted with a shiny gray enamel which resisted anything spilled on them.  Many featured a swing or two, and in some cases, the area underneath the porch provided a refuge for various pets, those intentionally acquired or otherwise made part of the family through a process of acclimation.

My childhood is full of front porch memories. One of my favorites, and funniest, involves an evening spent on my paternal grandmother and grandfather's front porch at their house just outside Memphis.  My grandfather ran a small country grocery store, and being a rather shrewd merchandiser, he often came up with novel ways to turn a buck.  One night, he brought home several cases of oatmeal and told us that we had a project.  He proceeded to pull out one of the boxes to show us that it contained a free green drinking glass.  Our "project" (and we were drafted for this, by the way) was to open each individual box, remove the glass, then tape the box back up, with masking tape nonetheless.  The plan was then to sell the boxes of oatmeal and the glasses separately, thereby generating additional revenue for the store.  I looked at this whole venture with a raised eyebrow, but being the kid, I had no choice but to participate.  Thank goodness I had clean hands.

In my elementary school years, Grandma and Grandpa Brooks lived in a cozy white frame house on Biltmore in north Memphis, and although I don't ever remember the house being particularly uncomfortable temperature-wise, we would often sit out on the porch well into the evening.  Grandma's next door neighbors had a daughter who was a few years older than I was, and she once gave me a stack of Beatles LP's for nothing.  Even though I was only eleven years old, with necessarily limited funds, she wouldn't let me pay her, so that was one of the best deals I ever made.  I still have all those LP's in my collection.  And as I recall, that deal was struck on the front porch.

Music often figured into the porch experience.  My friend Bobby lived with his mother in a pretty little house on Pope Street.  Bobby and I became good friends in our last few years of high school, and after we headed off to our respective colleges, we still kept in touch.  I remember many summer afternoons sitting on his front porch, playing Neil Young and B. W. Stevenson songs on my old Yamaha acoustic guitar.  Bobby was just learning to play, so I taught him a few riffs and chords while we chilled.  I remember thinking then that this music on the porch thing could go on forever and I wouldn't mind.

Porch sitting wasn't always confined to a wooden Southern structure.  I recall an evening with Grandma Brooks at my uncle's outdoor fire pit at his house in California, playing her favorite tunes for her: "The Battle of New Orleans" and "Act Naturally" were two of her favorites.  We sat and talked for hours, Grandma in her orange muumuu relating one family story after another -- she was a consummate Southern storyteller.  Grandma passed away about a year or so later, but she left behind those stories, an irreplaceable inheritance.

Some of the porch locations were spectacular.  In the late 80's and early 90's, we would visit our friend Herbert Evans in the mountains of western North Carolina.  Herbert's house sat at the summit of Big Ridge Road and looked out over the Blue Ridge Mountains -- it was indescribably beautiful.  Every evening at precisely six o'clock, Uncle Herbert would call for the start of happy hour.  He knew I liked scotch or bourbon, so he was always at the ready to offer a beverage and a little bowl of munchies, which were always mixed in precise proportions.  Herbert and I would sit on his front porch and talk about everything under the sun until it would start to set over the mountains.

These days, we spend a lot of spring, summer and fall evenings on the deck at Brooksville, listening to music and sipping cool libations.  One of my favorite things in the world is to sit out there with friends, talking about topics that span the horizon.  Often, we'll have neighbors or work friends over to visit well into the evening.  I turn the music down when it gets late.  Porch/deck/patio sitting is, thankfully, part of my life, and I always look forward to spending time out on the deck with those who live close by or come to visit.  Spring will be here soon, and we'll all be getting together again, I'm sure.

And on that note, I wish you all a very happy new year, a year in which I hope you can make many irreplaceable memories of your own.  Maybe I'll see you on the deck.