Today's porches are where you find them

One by one we settle into our lounge chairs and organize our books or adjust our Walkmans and laugh and chat as we smear ourselves with a No.15 or No. 30. It's morning at our neighborhood pool in north Florida, and those of us here have disposable time. We appear without prearrangement. We relax and hear about a grandchild's good report card, a new place to eat that's good but doesn't cost half the retirement savings, a son's marriage that didn't work out. Folks walk over and sit a spell or find a shady spot and read and doze - kind of like a neighborhood front porch.

Not one house in our neighborhood has a front porch. We have covered doorways and lanais and solariums. We've swapped the porch rocking chairs and swings for PVC-pipe chairs and lounges. And we've swapped the early-evening intimacy of neighbors on front porches for air conditioning and television behind closed doors.

Time was, when supper was finished and dishes were washed and dried and put away, warm Southern evenings sent grown-ups to the front porch in search of a breeze. And sent kids in search of each other.

Early evenings on Magnolia Lane in my Alabama hometown were like that - almost spiritual. Not that I thought it was spiritual then. All I thought of then was getting one of Grandmother's canning jars to catch lightning bugs or finding a good hiding place for kick-the-can.

Every house on our street had a front porch of one kind or another. I reckon every house in town did. Not all the porches were the same, however. Some were Victorian wraparounds with bits of gingerbread and climbing roses. Some were antebellum wannabes with columns. But most were like the porches on Magnolia Lane: plain vanilla. A few mismatched chairs. A swing. Geraniums and ferns.

Porch boxes of cascading fire-engine-red petunias - Mother's favorite - bordered our front porch. And we had ferns, lush from the tea leaves that Grandmother fed them after she'd made tea. She also poured the dishwater over the gardenia bush, and every year we had a bush full of insect-free blooms that perfumed the entire yard.

However our summer evenings began or whatever turn they took, the just-before-going-in time was the same. We answered the call of Mrs. French's piano and drifted to our own porches as she sat and played in the quiet darkness. The music floated through her open windows, holding us together, if only briefly.

Sadly, back porches have met the same fate as front porches. We now have the obligatory concrete slab that the realtor rhapsodizes about, "Oh, there are endless possibilities here." Translated: Enlarge it, roof it, screen it. Pretty-up the chairs with cushions, jazz up the old table with a funky cloth, buy some perky dishes.

I find it impossible to think of my Aunt Grace shelling peas on one of these nouveau back porches. Her old straight-back chair with the sagging-cane seat wouldn't even be considered eclectic. And there'd be no place at all for her back-porch wash stand, the one with the white-enamel pan where we washed our hands before going inside. Or our feet, if we'd been in the chicken yard.

Nowadays when I walk through our neighborhood in the early evening, I pass young mothers sitting in folding chairs in the driveway, visiting while their toddlers splash in a plastic pool. I round a corner and dodge a streaking puck from the kids playing street hockey under the watchful eye of a dad sitting on the doorway step. I return the wave of an elderly couple who applaud two budding cheerleaders doing cartwheels. On another street I catch a layup gone astray and pass it back to an aspiring Michael Jordan while his mother waters geraniums near the covered doorway.

I think about our mornings around our neighborhood pool, our neighborhood porch. Why, porches haven't disappeared - they're just redesigned. The spirit of the porch is still hearty. Porches are where you find them.

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