Front porches hold special appeal, fond memories

Colleen Kottke

Who knew the oak porch swing that we picked out of the Sears catalog the year I was expecting our first child would become my most treasured piece of furniture?

From the first warm, spring day until the chill of autumn forces me back inside, you can find me surveying my domain from the front porch.

Colleen Kottke

Before I traded my swing for an ergonomic office chair, I would perch on the swing with a sleepy baby nestled against my shoulder. From there I became attuned to the pulse of our neighborhood, doling out a friendly wave to the school bus driver, calling out a greeting to the neighbor meandering across the road to fetch her mail or watching the dog on the farm across the way help bring the cows up to the barn for the morning milking.

The welcome mat was always rolled out on our front porch. Comfortable chairs were added through the years to accommodate friends, neighbors and family who stopped by to chat.

Perhaps I inherited my affection for old porches from my grandmother. Every summer, my sister and I were granted a week to stay at grandma's big old house on Johnson Street — complete with a wrap around porch.

Who wanted to stay indoors when we could sit out on the glider reading books, acting out plays with the neighbor kids or counting Volkswagen Beetles (slug bug!)?

During the Depression, my grandmother gathered with other young mothers to shoot the breeze, exchange tips on how to disguise cabbage for yet another meal or tailor a hand-me-down spring coat for a younger sibling.

A porch swing is a place to slow down, get to know your neighbor or watch the world go by.

"You didn't have to wait for an invitation to go and visit a neighbor; you were always welcome on a front porch," she told me. "From out there no one could tell that you had dishes in the sink, a diaper pail filled with dirty diapers or cobwebs draped in the corners near the ceiling."

The front porch was the place to be on hot summer evenings. Without the benefit of air conditioning, families piled out onto the front porch in hopes of catching an elusive breeze or the latest tidbit of neighborhood news.

Today's media outlets had nothing on the little widow who lived around the block on Cotton Street. "Gladys" delighted in sultry evenings for the express purpose of gathering and spreading gossip to all those she encountered strolling around the block or lazing on their porches.

By the time the old girl had made it around the block she (and everyone else) knew about the Smith girl's broken engagement and the tale of how grandma's own sons had snuck into St. Patrick's Church the previous afternoon and climbed up into the bell tower in time to hear the big brass bell toll.

For better or for worse, this sharing of news provided a sense of community to the residents who called that neighborhood home.

As new subdivisions on the outskirts of town filled with one-story tract houses following World War II, the front porch began to disappear. In its place, patios and decks began to appear in backyards behind privacy fences and thick evergreen hedges.

The advent of air conditioning also drew people inside of their homes and
away from each other. For years, grandma blamed the "damned idiot box" (television) and the air conditioner for the social disconnect. And when she moved to a smaller home on the west side of town she had to settle for a modest ranch with an impersonal, postage stamp-sized porch made of concrete.

My own children recognized her affection for our porch swing and suggested buying one to put in great-grandma's own backyard. Although she enjoyed the summer evenings out by her flowers, she never got over the loss of the camaraderie and community adjoined to a well-loved front porch where neighbors never needed an invitation to sit awhile and visit.