This narrative essay, “Porches” by Jane Whitford, won the 2010 BLS/BPS Creative Writing Contest. Enjoy!
It is dark and foreboding, dismal and quiet. Is it morning or night? The shades are drawn and the atmosphere in the room is bleak. I have met myself head-on, a collision course in reality. Isolated in my room with the blue cotton curtains drawn, there isn’t an open window to create a breeze to wipe away my tears. It is safe lying here curled as a babe in the womb, under a white-down comforter for the soul, bought with dollars so easily spent, and it is here you meet the essence of who you are, when through desperation or tragedy, reason or elation, it becomes the moment you awaken.
The doorbell rang rousing my sluggish, middle-aged body to scurry down the beige carpeted stairs opening the white-paneled front door to my neighbor, Mary. She asked for her mail which I had collected from the past week while she was on vacation, but her strained smile and red-rimmed dull brown eyes didn’t tell me she had a wonderful time. I moved to the small front porch letting the outside aluminum glass door bang shut. It always snaps shut and one day the glass will just shatter. There are only so many times doors can bang until they’re broken and need to be replaced. There was an awkward silence, the kind you would like to fill with jubilant hallmark-like card expressions and anecdotes that are just funny. Mary sat down beside me on the cement step, and we leaned into one another our knees drawn up with our feet resting on the second step. When Mary moved in sixteen years ago, we would smile and casually say hello as we got in our cars, but after our girls were born four days apart we became friends for a reason, divine or coincidental, and sharing similar backgrounds just reinforced how our parallel lives had finally brought us together.
It is not comfortable sitting on a cement step; this is not the kind of porch I knew as a child. Porches built onto the houses of the forties and fifties would jut out toward the street, close to the sidewalk so you could lean over the railing and talk to a neighbor passing by, or wave to the oldest resident on the block who would rock back and forth on a warm summer night. The wooden spirals of the porch railings were separated every few inches, wobbled in places; you wouldn’t lean on them for fear they would split and you would end up at your passing neighbor’s feet. The paint was always chipped, so it was difficult to distinguish its original color which was usually matched with a speck from the roof’s shingle, ours was charcoal gray, speckled like shining coal, so our matching porch paint was gray. You would stand at a slant, one hip higher than the other because the floor of the porch sloped downward. The floor of the porch creaked and groaned under the youngest child’s weight, and the creaks were the loudest when Uncle Herbie, who was rounder than my hula hoop came to visit. My mom always had the most intense look on her face when our next-door-neighbor stopped over after supper. They would huddle together like football players before the next play, and I’m still not sure what it was all about, but for me the most exciting moments on the porch were just before a storm when the winds whipped under its roof and rain would dust your face like the finest powder.
My porch isn’t like that; it is part of a promenade of boring architecturally vacant, cost-effective front porches built in the seventies. Yet, it is here Mary and I sit briefly in silence wondering where to begin. The porch is set back far from the street, and we are able to watch the cars whiz by unaffected when she tells me she has received a diagnosis of breast cancer. We are tossed in a time bubble, encapsulated by that eerie sense of knowing life has changed and its outcome is unknown. Mary and I sat on this cement step under this same roof extension that is held up by four pillars, not elaborate Grecian works of art, but white vinyl covered ones, when I told her I would no longer be married. Were porches built for another reason other than an entrance into a house, or a place to stand under and wait for a ride? Are porches built to hear words spoken that otherwise would never be shared? Front porches become a conduit for an electrical charge of reaching out to connect with humanity, a safe house to exchange moments of grief and joy. The porch is where Mary and I, and friends alike, take off the layers of who we are expected to be and find comfort in being women.
The cars continue to parade past and the only thing standing between what is man-made and what is creation is the shade of a maple planted after so many trees were felled to build suburbia; yet, it has grown enough to give my small scrap-of- a-porch shade, and the tree, in gentleman’s disguise, guards these two women who are trying to hold on to their time. Inside the house I know we would never share intimate thoughts, and I wonder why a front porch or whatever has been designed to be a front porch seems to lend itself to openness. Why does it allow people to reach out in a way they never would if they were somewhere else? Perhaps we feel a porch is an approach between expectations and reality. It is a recovery point, a baggage area where we can lay our troubles down before we step inside the house to assume our roles in life or step outside to join the cars that just keep going.
Mary brings out her calendar to schedule appointments and she wonders if I will be there when she comes home. It feels good to breathe the air outside; it is invigorating and relaxes my mind. I look beyond the maple tree and the cars, to catch a glimpse of the sky that is breaking toward a late morning sun. Inside the house neither of us would see nor feel the optimism of a changing sky. You have to be outside, inside, on a porch feeling at home and a part of the daily rhythm of sunrise and dusk.
Mary needs to go home and make the calls to relatives who need to know. I sit alone watching her walk across the grass, her shoulders slumped, wondering where she will draw the enormous strength she must gather from within to face the challenges that lie ahead. My porch becomes my best friend for the moment, a secure place I don’t want to leave. This front porch doesn’t require a great deal of maintenance, just the people who sit on its step.