Friday, January 13, 2012

I’ll Be On the Porch

In 2004, our area was hit by four hurricanes spaced two weeks apart. It was during the aftermath of these storms that my love for porches began and they in turn became my sanctuary.

Charley was the first storm to come our way. Our city was shut down and the beaches evacuated, which it turned out was unnecessary. While Charley wreaked major damage just north and west of us, all we really received was some rain and slight winds. Char and I were sitting on the front porch, which was nestled between our garage and front door, a cup of coffee in my hand and a Mountain Dew in hers. We could see the rain begin at the far end of the street, slowly creeping its way toward us. It was like watching a solid wall of water as it moved southeast, drenching everything in its wake, and then it just stopped moving. We sat there sipping our drinks in peaceful solitude as the storm raged safely around us.

Frances came next and this one nailed us pretty good. At first, it was just like any major storm, but somehow during the night we lost power as the category four storm ripped through the Space Coast. The force of the wind had also knocked out two of the supports on my back porch and the wood banging on the concrete planter that outlined the porch woke me up. By morning, Frances was a mere drizzle and we had survived without major damage, but we were without power for four days.

Our home on Loveridge Drive didn’t have a lot of well placed windows and the one in the front living room was a solid picture window, so there was no way to allow air flow. August and September are still scorching months in Florida, and being trapped in a house with no power and few windows was not only dark, but downright melting. The only way to survive was to stay on the back porch.

The three boys, Char, and I took up residence around a small circular table that held a Coleman stove, the only way we could prepare meals, our Coleman lantern and a small AM transmitter radio. We read books, played games and listened to talk radio to hear how other people were surviving without power and where to find ice. The boys were enjoying themselves pretending we were on a four-day camping trip with the luxury of our own beds. The bonding that happened with our family in the aftermath of Frances could not be replaced.

The power finally came back on, but I never left the porch. It had become my haven, my peaceful place, and I was always recharged simply sitting out there and staring into my backyard.

We had about a week’s reprieve after Frances blew through in order to clean up the parts of our town that had been ravished. Blue tarps covered damaged roofs while broken branches and shingles were piled in front yards by the road for whenever Waste Management could get around to finally earning the money we get charged for the lousy job that they do. The chaos had almost settled down to a manageable level when Hurricane Jeanne hit and finished what Frances had started. This time we lost power before the storm even arrived! Some lady rushing home had taken out a power pole and thrust us into the dark.

In the middle of the night I heard a hard pounding coming from the backyard. Everyone was asleep since with no power there wasn’t anything else to do but sleep, so I decided to investigate alone. I crept to the back door to peer outside, the pounding outside reminding me of the drums I had heard in Haiti. The rain was beating the earth as the hurricane winds blew almost every tree practically parallel to the earth. One of the support’s that Frances had knocked loose had laughed at my feeble attempts at repair and the porch roof was sagging over the planter, the support performing a drum solo against the concrete. I ventured outside to fix it, hoping I could help it survive the storm.

While I was out there I decided to make my way down the side of the house to see if there was damage out front. As I slid around the front a gust of wind picked me up and sat me onto the hood of our car, which scared me into thinking I needed to gain weight. No longer caring about damage, I slithered back down the side of the house and through the porch and back inside.

Sometime in the night we heard something beating a steady rhythm on our roof, and noticed that the back porch had grown silent. As I peeked out the back window, the first thing I didn’t see was my porch roof. It wasn’t until I was able to go outside that I realized what had happened. One of the gusts from Jeanne had flipped our wooden porch roof onto the house and left it to beat a monotonous cadence throughout the night. We never did find the screen door or other supports. My back porch had become a painted slab that fast.

We had already gone through the madness that had followed Frances, so Jeanne’s aftermath was merely a repeat performance that had been held over for three extra days. Once again our family took up residence on the back porch and if it drizzled, we crammed ourselves onto the tiny front porch to lose ourselves in books, games, or conversation.

It was those unhindered, unhurried sharings that created my warm connection with porches. In these little havens people are relaxed and the atmosphere, the casualness of the spot, helps them unload the heaviness of their hearts and minds; they let their guards down and give themselves permission to relax without knowing it.

With the electricity still out the porch was also quiet and peaceful. We had grown so accustomed to being without it that when our electricity did come on again that seventh dark night no one noticed for an hour. We had lost ourselves in the “us” on the porch. We almost wanted to turn it back off, but Florida is hot and sticky and that part we were ready to be rid of. Hello, air-conditioning. Still, porches were now my comfortable spot for rest, relaxation, creating and family.

While the porches couldn’t go with us when we moved, my love for them did. On Stewart I had a screened back porch again, which we equipped with a hammock where I fell asleep on many rainy afternoons. We didn’t have a front porch, but I did have a massive oak just outside the front door, which made a great cover. I set up a table and chair, and the antics of the street were fodder for my imagination as well as a calming balm for my soul.

From the house on Stewart we moved to the beach house that Jessica had fallen in love with. The porch, however, was just a ten-by-ten slab of concrete, which I’m told they call a patio. Porches required a roof. Still, Char and Teri knew my need for a porch and soon I had a canopy with lights and a bar with comfy chairs that I’m told Martha Stewart designed, at least her name was on the bar when we bought it. I took up permanent residence on the left corner and rarely budged. Our friends knew not to waste time knocking on the front door, because we would never hear it. Instead, everyone followed the walkway around the house to the back and joined us at the bar.

Now, we’re back on the mainland with a screened porch, which is good because the beach winds shredded our canopy. The bar, however, is a permanent fixture even if it is usually a dry bar. Furthermore, there’s a pool, two oak trees riddled with squirrels, and the girls have planted a butterfly garden that I don’t have to weed. Every morning the cats meet me at the sliding glass doors, eager to curl up on one of the chairs and enjoy the sun’s rays stroking them through the screen, knowing that the porch will be my first stop every morning. It’s just as much a ritual for them as it is to me.

Even on vacation I have to find a porch to hide out on. When we attended Teri’s family reunion a few years ago, we stayed at some cabins at Fort Benning that had giant wooden decks, which are really just supersized porches, overlooking a very active river. When we weren’t visiting family that’s where I was found, sipping coffee and watching the world drift by. At my parents’ home in Alabama my father built a screened porch knowing that’s where I would spend most of my time while up there. Visiting other family members it’s the same thing. I don’t want to watch a movie or tour the city; I want to sit and enjoy the quietness and conversation that comes with a porch. Even when Alabama was freezing, I would be bundled up, sitting outside watching the world go by.

While attending our niece’s wedding, the hotel we stayed at didn’t have a porch. However, a chair on the walkway, cigar and a glass of scotch and my makeshift porch was ready for habitation. When the girls booked our cruise, they made sure to select a stateroom with a balcony, so that even in the middle of the Atlantic I would have a “porch” to get lost on. And getting lost is exactly what happens. For whatever reason I seem to write and think better when perched on a porch. It’s as if the outside helps my thoughts roam and not stay trapped inside a small box. They need room to follow trails that go off in any crazy direction.

Everyone needs that special place that recharges them and strengthens them to face the drudgery of day-to-day life, to take a break from paying bills or juggling schedules, from the drama that surrounds us because we live and breathe. We need that place that helps us refocus and allow our imaginations to fly unhindered to take us into the future. Porches are mine. Where can yours be found?

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