by Tracey Loscar
The porch is a magical place. It is far and away the best feature of this house. Small and screened in on three sides, it is cool in the morning and fully lit in the afternoon sun. This was by design, as my grandmother loved to read and would spend each day after lunch out here. Long legs stretched out and delicately crossed at the ankles, she would recline on an actual chaise lounge (I always wondered if anyone ever used them for this.) and flip through magazines or her latest book.
Growing up the porch was an escape hatch. My brother and I would be banished here, or go into voluntary exile. The porch offered just enough protection from the elements to almost count as outside. When afternoons got too warm to actually want to keep playing out in the surrounding fields or woods we could retreat to the porch. My grandparents did not believe in air conditioning, but the porch offered some shade and would funnel breezes off the water.
It is never truly quiet here. Crickets chirp, locusts hum, woodpeckers hammer, herons cry and gulls laugh as they circle overhead. Water laps against the dock, especially at high tide after some rain. The trees behind me murmur and rasp as a breeze picks up. I can remember the distinctive calls of the quails as they ran through the neighboring cornfields, “bob-WHITE, bob-WHITE!” Once the fields were razed to put additional houses in they moved elsewhere. The growl of small planes as they head for the local airfield, or the occasional boat motor as it moves by are the closest thing one gets to the sounds of daily traffic.
At dusk they would be joined by the whip-poor-wills, “WHIP-poor-WILL, WHIP-poor-WILL.” There are stories that say whip-poor-wills can sense a departing soul and are able to capture it. With all the death in this house, it’s no wonder you can hear them. Full dark brings the owls, whose eerie cries float through the dark, and the tinny whine of mosquitos. There are two seasons in the Tidewater, the mosquitos are bad and when they are not as bad. The porch provides fair though imperfect shelter from the nefarious creatures.
My grandmother grew roses. To say someone “grows roses” is a horticultural understatement, because to successfully grow roses it requires one to pay attention to details. It is a science, a vocation, to anticipate and understand the needs and preferences of these finicky flowers. A hedge of roses surrounded the porch, summers were full of pink, white and yellow (she was not fond of red). Huge blossoms floated in crystal dishes in the house, their companions nodding sagely against a backdrop of dark green leaves. Their fragrance would float through the porch all season, carried with a touch of salt from the sea. At various points throughout the thorny wall, were simple feeders hung on shepherd hooks. Between the large flasks filled with ruby red sugar water and the wall of roses, it was a veritable hummingbird buffet. Jeweled creatures no bigger than your thumb, the sylvan glitterati provided living decoration and entertainment as they darted in and out all afternoon. Green and gold flashes of light, with more color only viewable if you stayed very still and quiet, stalking them through the screened wall.
Lunch or early dinner would always be on the porch. Sometimes my brother and I would spend all morning crabbing off the dock. You could do that, before the commercial crabbers decimated the beds in the Chesapeake Bay. Grandma would keep chicken necks in the freezer for just this purpose. Wrap some cord around it, add a fishing weight, bring a bucket and net and you were good to go. We’d fill the bucket in an hour or two with blue claws and lug them up to the house. My grandfather had a pot for just this purpose and our briny friends would meet their inevitable fate quickly, the kitchen filling with clouds of steam laced with Old Bay seasoning.
Grandma would open up an actual card table (they would play bridge with friends once a week) on the porch and cover it with newspaper. Out came the bowls, nutcrackers and picks. Plates of fresh figs and raspberries from the bushes outside were there to pick at while we waited. A small pot with melted butter made a ring on the police blotter from last week. The crabs came out in two bowls, one filled with claws (for the amateurs) and one with just the bodies, mainly for my grandmother, who was the only one of us with the patience to pick them clean. There we would sit, as the sun began its late afternoon slide, with only each other for company. It wasn’t ideal, it never was, but it was good.
My grandparents, as everyone does, eventually passed. The house moved to my mother and ultimately my parents chose to move down here and make this their retirement home as well. My mother’s drinking had forced her into an early retirement and my brother, with no adult ability to function on his own thanks to his addictions, accompanied them. My father saw this small house in the middle of nowhere as a tool and a setting where he could perhaps at least contain the spirals.
The porch became my brother’s entertaining parlor, he smoked pot, played music, video games, drank and otherwise hung out in aimless fashion with his friends. Fixtures broke, furniture got destroyed, the walls slowly yellowed with a greasy patina of smoke, it became less of a haven and more of a direct reflection and extension of what was happening elsewhere in the house. Climate control replaced the breezes off the water, the windows were all closed. Sound comes only from the television, or the computer, or the phone … or the fighting.
The roses are all gone, long dead from neglect and eventually discarded. There is still a shepherd’s hook out there, canted to the side and long unused. I have not seen a hummingbird in years. The figs are gone, the garden plowed under. Dead landscape gravel and modest hardy evergreens now serve as a border. Some of them are dead too.
My mother tried to reclaim the porch. New carpeting, replace the paneling, new sun shades, a charming little dolphin, driftwood, beachside motif. White wicker, blue cushions, a lot of effort for a room she would never use. Brand new windows she never opened. My father had no interest in the porch, his base of operations is on the other side of the house, where he ruled the residence from the head of the dining room table each day, an enormous television within view and easy access to the garage door for escape purposes.
When I finally brought my children, they discovered the porch on their own. They recognized the potential in the small space, this borderland between the stress of inside and the freedom of outdoors. They played in the sunbeams on the floor and curled up in chairs to just watch the water. They realized that they could stay out on the porch and not have to listen to what was going on inside, or smell the acrid smoke that always hovered in the air, so they learned to shut the door.
My brother drank himself to death and my father’s heart finally gave out, leaving my mother alone in this house with her demons. There is no peace in this house, only grief, frustration and addiction.
I escape to the porch, because I want to listen. It is hard to hear, because the constant television blares from the family room, feeding a daily unrelenting need for input. I escape to the porch, because I want to feel the breeze and smell the water. It is hard, because the windows are never open and there is used smoke everywhere. I escape to the porch because I want to see, but piles of boxes now occupy much of space, impulse purchases from catalogs and infomercials forgotten as quickly as they were bought.
Still, I stubbornly move the boxes and I open the windows and I look out over the water. I try to watch the water every day. I know it in all its moods. Today it is a slate blue, and in the morning the angle of the sun causes sparks of light to flash from every ripple, it is pure magic. If you sleep too late you could miss it. In the rain it becomes a somber grey, pinpricks covering the surface as water meets water, fooling the fish to rise where they meet their fate in an eagle’s claws. When the wind rises, tiny whitecaps froth the shallow waters, a reminder that the sea is not far away. I sit in my father’s chair beneath my grandmother’s lamp, wishing they were here and hoping they know that I am doing the best that I can. I appreciate the smell of coffee in my cup, and listen to the summer outside.
The door opens, a gust of secondhand smoke hits me. My mother scurries in, complaining about the cold. She wrestles the windows shut, stating I will make her furniture damp. Hurrying back in the house, the door shuts and the sounds of the TV turn up, the world forced out once more.
Movement catches my eye, a blue heron lands on the dock, taking up his afternoon position on the weathered wood. I’m fairly sure I’m the only one who realizes he comes every day. Sighing, I get up and push all the windows open again, saying a silent hello to my friend outside.
Perhaps that is just how life should work. Opening the windows other people keep closed.
Category: Memoir, Nonfiction