The Dying Art of Front-Porch Sitting
by Margaret Iyengar
On your next dusky drive along a county road, emerge from your thoughts, turn down your podcast, and notice the collage of images passing by your window: Watch for the dusk to settle on the hills, nestling down in the valleys, snuggling up to the peaks, plastering the hillside canvas in warm hues. When the orange light softens the ridge lines and whispers promises of stillness to come, drive slowly along the deserted back roads, wind along those narrow lanes. Note the dark houses, the ones fronted by wide porches designed to be welcoming and gathering places. Count the empty chairs, swings, and benches on those porches, left lonely for lack of occupants. Does this feel familiar to you? Is this the sight of solitude you’re used to seeing on such drives? Or is it new now that you’ve noticed it, a phenomenon apparent only because you slowed down with intention?
These dark houses, these empty porches, the hills that cup them in protective basins, the meandering roads you just traversed—this is supposedly a place where time stands still or, at the very least, moves much slower. Like a model holding still for a portrait, beautiful Kentucky holds its breath, and so our leisurely stopwatch keeps the truthful time that stereotypes about eastern Kentucky are often grounded in. It’s why we talk slower, drive slower, get access to information slower. It’s why some holler-dwellers got their electricity, running water, telephone, and cable television in living memory. It’s why many of us still can’t get truly high-speed internet or reliable cell phone service, why my satellite radio signal still cuts out when I’m climbing the hill to cross into Rowan County, and why my aunt and uncle stopped using well water in their home just last year. Yes, these things also involve geographical and sociological factors, but for the most part, it comes back to our slow pace of living in these foothills and mountains.
So where are the front-porch sitters today? Because by driving by and counting the empty porches, I can tell you where they aren’t. This is a forgotten pastime. It’s why there are so many rocking chairs for sale at Cracker Barrel on any given day, lined up like headstones in front of the restaurant graveyard where artifacts of Americana go to die. Maybe there is more work to be tended these days. Maybe it’s because groceries have grown so expensive that gardens have been enlarged; too big to manage in daylight hours, their weeding and watering now last until dark. Or maybe it’s the opposite, and when tobacco for the most part abandoned us, so did the desire and need to rest and relax outdoors, to connect with the soil that has now let them down. Perhaps the would-be porch-sitters found authors they love and they’re reading indoors where it’s light, or they’ve embraced technology and are surfing the net, even at dial-up speed. It could be that they’re watching KET or the History Channel or, God forbid, reality television. Maybe—but I sincerely hope not—they’re at Wal-Mart. Even worse—and I fear here lies the truth—maybe that whole generation of porch-sitters—my grandparents’ generation—is slowly becoming too tired or too frail to sit outside alone, farmwork becoming too burdensome to leave leisure time at dusk.
When I was a barefoot child in the front yard of the farmhouse, shaded by oak tree sentinels and shielded by those barrier hills, the porches were almost never empty. Front-porch sitting was a ritual no one even talked about. It was just what people did—after lunch, bellies full, recovering before climbing back on the tractor or in the bed of the pickup to head back out to the tobacco fields. It was sherbet on the swing after supper or a spell in a rocker with a fly-swat in hand. My mamaw passed time on the porch in her particular way—swaying silently, the rough bottoms of her browned feet rhythmically rocking, heel-toe-heel-toe, on the smooth concrete of her front porch. I remember sitting on the white glider with the early dusk of mountain shadows creeping upon us like Sandburg’s fog, “little cat feet” not spooked by the spoon handle clattering against the rim of my sticky bowl of melting ice cream. We sat on that porch so often and for so long, I memorized the orange-seed-pattern of the metal mesh that made up mamaw’s glider; each summer night the seeds were squeezed into the backs of my legs. When it rained, I caught the water dancing in rivulets from the roof of that porch, filling up cups and dumping them, filling and dumping, filling and dumping, until bedtime finally called. Under murky but cloudless skies, I chased down lightning bugs, running them up to my row of spectators on the porch, assembled in the various chairs lined up there as though it were my own private stadium. I saw the dark dive-bombing specks that were June bugs, watched warily from the safe shelter of the porch’s protection with my hands covering my bright blonde hair in fear that they might still get me. At any given sunset, we were a tableau of sitters, not quite a still life, but a slow one nonetheless.
Walt Whitman says grass is “hopeful green stuff,” and I know that’s true, because the grass in my mamaw’s front yard harbored all the hope of my childhood years. Each blade of grass was like a fiber in a magical tapestry, a magic carpet that would take me anywhere I hoped to be in my wild imagination. That hopeful grass transported me and my cousins time and again to a different plane of existence, where we could be freely. How I long for it now, to take me back to that place, those people, that frame of mind—to take us all back, back to knowing the artistry that is weaving together the story of a day lived truly and well. Back then, I painted the summer air with my songs. Nothing made me happier than singing my heart out in those hills, pig-tailing behind the tobacco setter, where each seat was occupied by someone who loved me bigger than all the acres of river bottom they were planting. Of course, after lunch and after supper we sat on that great big porch, but in the daytime my voice raised in song, echoing in the fields, or in the pastures as we checked on the cattle, or, later in the season, in the tobacco stripping room tucked inside the big barn. The magic carpet was free to take me anywhere imaginary, but that farm was the only place in the real world I wanted to be. This was not a phenomenon exclusive to my family or my childhood. When you visited neighbors years ago, how often did it seem like they were waiting just for you to arrive because they’d already gathered outside? How many of you knew people who set up impromptu concerts, picking and grinning on the porch? How many neighbors have you known who seemed to just watch traffic, waving at each passing car whose driver may not have even noticed? What scenes could you sketch of time spent simply by just being on a porch?
Yet I grew into a woman who eventually lost the song in her heart, forgot the power of artistry and of connection, and I succumbed to this culture of always going, never stopping. I was blessed with the opposite kind of woman for a mother, a woman who devoted a lot of energy, despite my eye-rolling in response, to calling my attention to intention. She always found forgotten roads and would insist on slowing the car—sometimes stopping, even, with blatant disregard for the damage such embarrassment inflicted on my teenage ego—to read historical markers along the way to wherever we were going. She would impart random factoids about our state history and regional folklore, singing nearly-lost hymns and bluegrass ballads to while away the time on road trips to camp in state parks, which was our family’s version of a summer vacation, chunked up and spread out across all the available warm-weather weekends. She gave me an imaginary friend to play in the yard with when I was four, took me to an apple orchard for my twelfth birthday, bought me a mountain bike for Christmas when I was fifteen. Even when I resisted, as all children are bound to do for at least some phase of childhood, I heard her unspoken message: pay attention to what’s around you, right here, and you’ll never need to be somewhere else to be happy. And while this is the kind of childhood message I swore to save for my own children someday, it took me years to realize that it doesn’t happen naturally, that I couldn’t just have that kind of mom and be that kind of mom, that it takes work. I was driving when it hit me, my three-year-old strapped into her car seat behind me engrossed in some video on an iPad screen: Where did the leaves go? I looked on both sides of the highway where a drab steel sky met dry brown grass with no fiery fanfare, just spindly sticks poking toward non-existent clouds. What day was it? What month? How had I missed it? Wasn’t it just last week I’d wondered when the leaves might start to change? Or was that two weeks ago? My mind flipped planner pages frantically, ticking back through meetings and homework assignments. I could feel my fingers groping around the fringes of my brain for lost moments and coming up empty-handed. It had been weeks, at least, since that musing on my homeward commute. I hadn’t even spoken the question aloud at the time. I hadn’t called my daughter’s attention to the upcoming phenomenon my mother had taught me to look so forward to. I’d let her watch moving pictures inside the car while life moved on outside without us. I was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan, watching for the longest day of the year and then missing it, but worse—I’d let the transition to an entire season pass me and my daughter by. My mom drove me three hours to an interstate park where we could hike up a mountain and see the fall foliage of three different states from a breathtaking, neck-breaking height that I will never forget. I drove us through the magnificence of autumn every day and forgot to see it.
We don’t seem to spend enough time just being anywhere anymore, but we’ve gotten really good at one kind of being: in a hurry. Urgency and busyness make us feel important and needed. We see idle time as laziness and the lack thereof as a conversation starter for superficial exchanges as we pass each other by. We don’t know where that real conversation could go if we sat together and let it unfold, and we don’t intend to be still enough to find out. Even being outside, in nature, is more about our self-centered stories than true experiences. We are more concerned with carving our names into the trees to leave our marks and snapping the selfies that prove we were there than with leaving no trace and harnessing the power of collective memory, being part of a larger natural force. We’ve lost sight of the value of nature, forgotten that being in nature together has both transformative and restorative powers with the potential to be as real and palpable as the feeling of wind on our faces and grass between our toes. So much in the last decade of my life has given me pause, called my attention to my inability to actually pause, and made me question the kind of life I’ve been living as an example to my daughter, a representative of the next generation of potential front-porch sitters. When my marriage was in shambles, I did a lot of soul-searching on a lot of porches, with the important women in my life. I spent hours crying on my mama’s front porch, watching cars and being watched by neighbors and genuinely contemplating what my future had in store. I can remember the porch where I sat, at a rental cabin on a family getaway weekend, when I texted my best friends that I was getting divorced. Months later, I’d sit on the stoop of my newly rented townhouse, wishing I had a front porch at all. Through all this, I’ve rediscovered the central importance of that spot as a safe place to feel and to connect—with nature, with our loved ones, and with ourselves. What had once seemed so all-important and all-consuming had lost its power, and in its place I found the real value of sitting still. All those things that try to keep me busy elsewhere, they can wait. The essays can be graded tomorrow. The dishes can be washed later. The household and professional duties that were keeping me from my duty to live in this moment with these people can be put on hold. Life, itself, cannot.
Last fall, a group of us gathered on the front porch of my girlfriend’s parents’ house, her extended family blending with my own little ménage. The trees shed their leaves at our feet and the sunset promised to paint the night cold with cool hues dripping on the horizon. And as I watched this happy moment unfold—heard the delighted squeals of my babies being chased while basketballs bounced and dogs barked in mock disapproval—I remembered what it was like to feel those moments in my core, the kind of memories we need to sculpt into authentic stories.
So who will replace the old front-porch sitters? Will it be us? Will we change course and really rediscover this lost art? Will it be our babies? Will this trait skip a generation but find its next prodigious artists among our progeny? Right this moment, even with all I’ve learned, I’m still too busy to build this habit into the ritual it once was and deserves to be. But I want my daughter to know the joy of time well spent on summer evenings, to know the feel of my wicker bench on the soft undersides of her thighs, to know that there are places worth just being in and people worth just being with. So for today, I’ll pretend that the front porches are empty because in these modern times, most granddaughters prefer to eat their after-supper sherbet around back. For tomorrow, I’ll promise to find at least one moment to teach my girl the splendor and simplicity of this particular brand of Kentucky folk art.
Margaret Iyengar is a high school English teacher in Kentucky and a native of the area. She earned her MA in English from Morehead State University and is a fellow of the Morehead Writing Project. She is currently pursuing a Doctor of Arts degree in English Pedagogy from Murray State University. Her personal writing addresses themes pertaining to memory, identity, culture and motherhood in the contemporary South. She does her best writing at home with her babies, Arabella and Axton; partner, Amrita; and rescued pups Melville and Hawthorne.