"The front porch was a place where three and sometimes four generations of family could sit and talk about anything and everything. Discuss their problems, tell and re-tell stories of days gone by"

Things I learned on the Front Porch

Joe M. Young
Date Written/Revised  
Autumn 2002


Walt Disney had the right idea. He had a dream of building a town, a community really, of homes that would all mesh into a tight knit band of families such as one might have seen around the turn of the century. Of course, he didn't live to see his dream become a reality, though it was built eventually.

The town, called Celebration, is in Disney World in Florida and is home to about 30,000 people. The one requirement of each of the houses built, was that it include a very large, usable front porch. I believe that what Walt had in mind, was that when people used to sit on front porches, very little vandalism and petty crime would bother them. The theory is simple: when people are out of the house, sitting in front visiting, they see everyone that passes by. They have a chance to talk to their neighbors who are similarly out and about. They know everyone in the neighborhood for the same reason. They face their friends on an everyday basis. It is a proven fact that people are less likely to commit a crime against someone they know, simply because they would have to face them to commit these crimes, and it is harder to do that than to say, rob a stranger whom you will never again see. The front porch is something that has been slowly phased out of the architectural styles of homes in modern American in the last forty or so years.

The front porch was a place where three and sometimes four generations of family could sit and talk about anything and everything. Discuss their problems, tell and re-tell stories of days gone by. Laugh about a funny incident that refuses to get less funny as the years go on. A place where a child can hear a story told by his grandparents, about his own mother or father, from when they were the same age as the child is now. Talk until the lights need to be turned on. The need for lights is not very urgent though, since visiting and talking can be done in total darkness if need be. Indeed, the lack of light seems to strengthen one's ability to recall events which time has weakened in one's memory. And it will stay strong if recalled and retold every so often.

Front porches brought families closer together, and made them stronger as a unit, since these impromptu gatherings would make the problems of one, seem as though they were the problems of the entire family. It is unsurpassed as a social tool. A bonding device that is not equaled by any gathering or get together that is planned for just such an occasion. I suppose that eventually, there will be no one left who remembers why we used to have large, socially inviting front porches. The children of today, no doubt will look at an older home with so much character, and wonder, "Why didn't they just enclose that big front porch area and make it a rumpus room, or computer room or game room?" It's not their fault, but they are the ones who wind up the losers in this because they never had the chance to experience the rich, warm, loving times produced by these now ancient gatherings places. Today's postman hardly needs to leave his truck anymore to deliver the daily mail. No chance to say "Hi" to the same family, at the same house at which he has delivered his charge for years, and who might offer him a glass of lemonade or ice tea on one of those insufferably hot summer days. I don't even know whether my postman is male or female, or even if it is the same person every day of the week. I think Walt Disney was a man with great insights into what is missing in this rope-a-dope world we have created. A world without porches.

I remember gathering on the front porch of my grandparents' house as a child. In the south, we had dinner at noon, and supper in the evening. Supper consisted of left over dinner. After supper, everyone would drift toward the front porch. The elders on their old spring metal chairs, my mother and her sisters on the concrete slab that served as an on-the-spot table for dessert. My grandfather would reach into his pocket and drag out the knife he'd carried since he was a child, and run it down the side of a ripe yellow meat watermelon when we could afford to buy one. Let the juices run off the side, then after we were finished making pigs of ourselves, he'd take the hose and spray it off, and within five minutes, it was a seat again. All of us kids would plop down on the concrete, still warm from the scorching sun that had baked it all day. Darkness would come upon us without notice while we sat listening and talking about what was and what we hoped would be in life. We cried about the losses and puffed with pride over the wins. Before you knew it, it was full on dark. The cool breeze of the evening tickling the hair on your arm and your neck. Whatever wisdom was carried by my grandmother and grandfather, was imparted to the rest of us as gifts. Gifts we didn't need to earn because it had been paid for with their experience. All we had to do was.....listen.

Soon, I would find myself starting to nod. It's hard to stay awake too long into the night when you're leaning back and being hypnotized by the hum of the everpresent swamp cooler. I can remember being carried off to bed by my mother who looked over to find me laid out asleep from the talk, and food and relaxation that comes with the security of being with your family. Not doing anything, just being with them. Money is not necessary with a front porch. We were impoverished when I was young, but you don't need money to sit and visit. Even as I grew older and had a family of my own, and was able to afford to buy luxuries, I still looked forward to the holidays. Not for any presents and gifts, but because when we lived near enough to each other, we'd all get together and eat and talk and have fun.

These are skills I learned, we all learned on the front porch. My grandfather was a contractor all of his life. It would not surprise me to learn that when he sat down with the architect of each project, they started with the front porch and worked their way around. It would have been strange to see a house without a front porch big enough for the entire family to sit around eating watermelon as the sun faded into the night. Just the right segue into an evening of "remember when we..." or "Smell that? I'll bet we're gonna get some more rain tomorrow. " Try to smell the moisture in the air, from within an insulated room inside your house, where every family member is doing something in another room. Lots to keep us busy, but nothing to keep us feeling like one instead of many in one place. I'll bet my grandfather would look at homes today and say "These houses are not yet finished. Not until they put the porches on." Yes, him and Walt Disney.

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