Sunday, July 24, 2011

Grandpa and The Old Front Porch

Its funny how this hot weather, miserable and seemingly unending, has managed to spark some pleasant memories that have taken me back to simpler, more carefree days.  Life passes us by at such a rapid rate that nearly everything now appears as a blur that no sooner appears on one horizon and, before you know it, disappears over the other.  Maybe that's a product of growing older or maybe it's just the world becoming more and more complex.  Or, perhaps, it may be a combination of those two.  Whatever the reason, my world is flying by all too fast.

As I said, the hot weather, this endless stretch of one hundred degree plus days triggered my memories of times that have long since come and gone.  The house I grew up in on Summer Street was not a large house.  It had a couple of bedrooms, a living room, dining room, and something a bit bigger than a walk-in closet called a kitchen.  Across the front of the house stretched a comfortable old porch that served as a second home to us during the hot summer months.

There are many pleasures connected with my childhood, most revolving that old house on the tree-lined brick street.  Many of those memories center on that front porch.  The porch was at one time completely open.  Built in the mid-twenties, it was a perfect meeting place for neighbors who would gather in those days to talk and share the news of the day in lieu of cable, satellite, or incessant Internet surfing.  It was on these steps and on the porch swing that these neighbors became more of an extended family than just a group of people living in close proximity of one another.  Lives intertwined.  People became involved in one another's day-to-day activities because they were close to each other and knew practically everything there was to know about the other.

By the time I was born and began my journey through childhood, my grandpa had the porch closed in.  Now, instead of wide-open space, there were screens in the summertime and windows in the winter.  Still, that old porch was a meeting place of the neighborhood.  In those days (the 1950's) people seldom moved from where they may have lived for thirty or forty years.  The only thing that had changed since the house was built in the twenties was the fact that now the neighbors could enjoy themselves on a hot summer evening sitting behind the protection of screens.  No more constant swatting of mosquitoes or rain blowing in during a summer evening thunderstorm.

I played on that porch constantly.  It was my summer home in the days before air conditioning became commonplace.  At one end of the porch hung a beautiful old porch swing that had seen many, many seasons come and go.  It was the pride of the room.  My grandfather babied that beloved piece of furniture as though it were an infant.  He would carefully hang it from several massive hooks anchored to the ceiling every spring as the first hint of warm weather arrived.  During the long winter, he cleaned and painted it despite the fact that the swing took up a good part of the basement.  Throughout the summer, he invited people to sit and have a swing, joking that it would be the only breeze they'd feel on a summer's night.  As the cool air of fall arrived and we were forced inside, he would carefully remove the swing from the hooks and take it to the basement where another season of babying this prize possession would take place.

The rest of the porch was populated with various kinds of comfortable chairs all made of the heaviest gauge of metal or thick wood.  There was not a piece of plastic in sight!  Seems like everyone had their assigned seating.  My grandfather sat on the side of the porch opposite the swing.  It was here that he assumed his role as king of his castle.  I remember with fondness those long ago Sundays.

My grandmother and grandfather always attended the 10:00 AM Mass on Sunday.  My mother and I would follow at the 11:00 o'clock Mass.  While we were in church, my grandmother started the weekly food fest.  She would often fix fried chicken, mashed potatoes, some sort of a vegetable and very often, in the heart of the summer, she would slice giant tomato slices that had been purchased from one of the many roadside stands in the countryside surrounding the little Midwestern village I grew up in.  Often, a pie served as dessert.  To my grandpa, no meal was a meal without dessert!

After Mass, we would come home, anticipating what dinner might be.  We didn't have to wait long.  The minute we hit the driveway the aroma of our meal was apparent, hanging over the house like some sweet perfume.  We rushed into the house and were greeted with the sound of the chicken sizzling in an oversize iron skillet.  The house was so small, that you could see the front porch from the kitchen and there would be grandpa, sitting in his chair on porch, devouring the Sunday paper, cigar smoke swirling about his head.  He loved a good cigar and to this day, on those rare occasions when I smell cigar smoke, this image of grandpa comes to mind.

Once the meal was served, we often jumped into the family car for a Sunday afternoon ride.  It was the thing to do in those days.   Since there was no cable TV, Internet, or DVD's, DVR's or anything else electronic, it was our form of entertainment.  We often road into the country just south of town to visit some of grandpa's relatives still living on farms that their families established decades ago.  The adults would talk over the "good ole days" while the kids ran through the yard playing tag or some other innocent childhood game.  Late in the afternoon, we'd head back home for an evening on the porch.

Grandpa would assume his usual position on the porch, light up another cigar, and simply watch the world go by.  Grandma would finish dishes from the light evening meal and join us soon after she was done.  My mother deated herself in the swing gently pushing herself back and forth.  I would often bring my toys to the porch and spread them out on the floor.  It was a wonder sometimes that anyone could even get through the clutter.  But no one seemed to mind.

Occasionally, a neighbor would drop by for some conversation, fanning themselves with an ad from that day's paper long since discarded by my grandpa.  The talk would revolve around the kids, what they were doing and how they were.  Tales of the grandchildren lit up the night with smiles and laughter.  As the sun set, we watched with awe as the summer sky, while only a few moments ago white hot with the blinding sun, began to fill in with the colors of dusk.  The glowing embers of my grandfather's cigar became brighter as the sun sunk closer and closer to the horizon.  Finally, it seemed like the sun would hesitate just as it intersected with the earth as if to bid us all a pleasant evening.  And then, in the twinkling of an eye, it would disappear for another day.

Our guest would linger for a little while longer and then announce that it was getting late and head off for home.  As my grandpa's cigar shortened I knew my bedtime grew nearer.  I played on, trying to push the clock back a little so that the day would magically be longer and I could stay up till the wee hours.  It never worked and regular as clock work, once the cigar was extinguished, it was time for a bath and then bed.  The newspaper would be gathered up, the chairs straightened, and the screen door locked as life headed into the house for the rest of the day.

This cycle was repeated day in and day out for years until the summer of 1962 when it was discovered that my beloved grandpa had some strange disease called cancer. I knew he was sick because he began to lose a great deal of weight in a short amount of time and the energy he once had seemed to be gone.  Still, he loved his porch and would retreat to it every time he had the chance and felt up to it.  It was his comfort zone long before that term became a popular cliche.  He spent many hours of his last summer on that porch, taking in life in a different way than he had before.

He reminisced more often about the old days, days of his childhood on the farm and his time in the army in Paris during WWI when he served as an MP.  There were times when tears came to his eyes talking about me growing up but, because I was only nine that summer, I didn't quite understand why the sadness.  I just knew that everything would be alright as long as he sat on the porch, puffing away at his cigar.  But those times dwindled and  as the summer wore on and he became weaker and weaker because of the chemo he suffered through.  But, he had his porch.  That porch was like a healing balm to him mainly because when he sat on it family and friends would follow.  He loved his family and friends so dearly.

We lost him in April, 1964.  There was a cold snap in April that year and the day he was laid to rest in the Catholic cemetery south of town was a cold day indeed.  It was hard for me to believe that my grandpa, the only grandfather I ever knew, would no longer sit on the one end of that porch with his cigar lit, pouring over the newspaper.  No more would stories of the old days or debates about the day's political happenings echo on that porch quite like they once had.  There would be no more funny stories of family doing the goofy things that bind them together in unique ways.

As the years went by and I grew, I still spent a good amount of time in that place.  The porch swing was still hung every spring but it wasn't as well kept as when my grandfather was around.  Usually, one of the men in the neighborhood kindly hung it and took it down until I was old enough to perform the task myself.  My grandmother, saddened for the rest of her life by the departure of the greatest love she had ever known, used to sit on the porch in the evenings with my mother and I.  But, somehow, without that lit cigar and telltale red glow with curls of smoke wafting through the room, it just wasn't the same.

As time moved on, I moved away, started a family of my own and the porch faded into the background of my life.  Years later, the house was sold to the school district so that a new school could be erected on the site.   The house, along with the porch, was not torn down, however.  It was moved to the other side of town where, to this day, it sits, providing comfort and shelter to another family.  I seriously doubt, however, that they use the porch like we did.  They're probably all huddled indoors like most of the rest of us in air conditioned comfort, never knowing of the pleasures that old room once provided.

The old porch and my grandpa who loved it as much as a place can be loved, still linger on that porch--at least in my memory.  There, my grandmother, my mother, my grandfather, and I all collect on summer evenings to take in the sights, sounds, and smells from that old front porch.  And in those moments, life pauses to once again sweeten my life, and then moves on.  They, and it, will be with me for the rest of my days.