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Childhood memories from our Front Portch
Front Porch Education by Annmuma

In the deep recesses of my memory, I recall a daily time of peace, a time to reset my mind and a time of family bonding.  It wasn’t called ‘family bonding’.  The time did not have a name; it just happened when Daddy said, “Let’s go sit on the porch, Mary.”  Almost as clearly as I saw it then, I see it now.
 
My father and mother sat in rocking chairs, with us kids perched on the steps to listen to whatever was said.  In the late 1940’s, the absence of television, telephones and today’s twenty-four-hour imagined immediate need-to-share allowed space to learn to think and talk and appreciate the simplest things in life.  Our rural Central Louisiana ritual was duplicated in some fashion in most homes of that era in our locale. 
 
A typical evening began with dinner, the third home-cooked meal of the day, around five, except on Sunday when there was only breakfast and a mid-day meal that lasted all day.  But even Sundays had similar endings. as if the curtain was about to drop on another day as the actors took final bows before bedtime.  Our places were not assigned, but they were accepted as our spots.  Daddy’s rocking chair sat nearest the porch’s left edge; Mama’s was near the door just in case Daddy needed something from inside the house.  That’s conjecture on my part, but it felt that way. 

John and I perched on the steps, ready to hear whatever might be said.  It’s strange to me that I have no memory of my older sister as part of the group.  She was eight years older than I and my first porch-sitting memories began with our move to the ‘big house’ in 1948.  Perhaps, she, as a teenager, did not take part in our evenings.  I don’t know.

For a few minutes, we sat, immersed in the quiet surrounding us.  No one seemed eager to break the silence and then, as if the script required it, Daddy initiated the first subject for the night.   Some early summer nights, the local birds would be front and center.

“Did you know that a single purple martin can eat two thousand mosquitos in one night?” 

He would say this to no one in particular, but we all listened as we watched the acrobatics of dozens of purple martins chasing and eating mosquitos. It was fascinating and the birds provided captivating aerial escapades just as the sun set over the pine trees in the background. 

Daddy had six martin houses strategically placed and painted a bright white to encourage the martins to occupy them in late February or early March.  The hope was they would stay through their final clutch, ordinarily fledged in mid to late August.

Mosquitos were the bane of Louisiana, both outdoors and indoors.  Years later, I discovered there is no basis to the tale of two thousand mosquitos in a single night, but I believed the myth then and the lack of evidence has had little effect on what I think today.

Talk of the purple martins would lead to more talk about the birds.

“John, I saw you out in the field today.  Did you see any feelarks?”

“No sir.”

“Well, you need to watch when you are out there with Kate.  Feelarks have nests out there and you don’t want to step on one.”

John was about seven years old when this conversation took place and often rode Kate when just out exploring. Kate was our favored Jenny, a female donkey, and one of several we had. 

“Look over there!  That looks like a baby snake hanging from barbed wired?  What is that?”  We turned in the direction John pointed.

“That is a snake.”  Daddy replied.  “A small grass snake hung there by a butcherbird for a later snack.  They eat all sorts of small reptiles like lizards or tiny frogs.  I’ve even seen a crawfish stuck on a thornbush before.”

Mama would join conversation occasionally.  “I saw a chicken hawk out near the chicken house.  We need to watch the baby chicks.”

Daddy laughed. “Mary how are you going to watch those chicks?  It’s nature.  The hen will watch what she can and, if one is lost, it’s okay.  Hawks only eat when they are hungry.  Those little chicken hawks probably only eat every three or four days.”

About that time, we heard a whippoorwill call.  Daddy mimicked back. Chip-cut-down-the-white-oak.  A short silence and the bird answered: Chip-cut-down-the-white-oak.  This communication continued for a few minutes and then Daddy would repeat another widely held myth about whippoorwills. 

That unsettling story held that hearing the call of a whippoorwill before the sun completed its trip beyond the horizon foretold a death of someone.  Once the sun had disappeared, whippoorwill calls were welcomed.    

Now I know the feelarks were eastern meadowlarks; the butcherbird was a loggerhead Shrike, the whippoorwill we heard was likely a chuck-will’s-widow and that chicken hawk was a sharp-shinned hawk whose preferred diet of small birds is unlikely to include chickens.  I suppose it was one of those nights that first ignited my interest in and love of birding.  The correct bird identification was of no concern and that is not the point of this story. 

Our evenings’ subjects varied from politics to what was going on in town. Sometimes, we talked about the skies, the stars and I remember being amazed at the number of falling stars we could see, almost on any given night.  I did not hear the term meteor shower, but the events were no less bewitching and spellbinding.

Typically, Daddy chose the subject, though Mama might mention Bible School for us or a cow ready to calve or someone in the neighborhood who died. Her subjects were more practical.  One could call Mama’s stories an opening act, but the main attraction came when Daddy’s lifted the curtain to begin the play. 

We heard about unions on the night he mentioned ‘featherbedding’ and the threat of a railroad engineers’ strike to support the firemen. 

We learned about politics when he talked about the ‘Longs of Louisiana’, from Huey to Earl.  He idolized Huey Long and he talked about his assassination in 1936.  He told the story of Earl Long coming to Tioga to campaign from the back of a battered pickup truck, while wearing unkempt overalls.  He said Earl Long told the crowd that he had a suit and tie inside the truck, but he preferred to look like his audience, because he was one of them. 

Daddy laughed at the saying of the day:  The Longs take four dollars from every citizen.  They build a bridge with one dollar; they build a hospital with one dollar; they provide free school lunches with one dollar and they put one dollar in their pockets.   

The theme of the evening was not consequential.  The accuracy of the details was insignificant. It was the setting, the actors; it was us.  It was not what was talked about, it was the ‘talking about’ that created the peace of that day, the connection, the hope, the belief in a better tomorrow.  It was not what was heard; it was the listening that made the difference in our lives. 

We need those times more than ever today. 

Someway, somehow, we must take some time for ourselves in quiet thought and the peace that comes from getting to know who we really are.  A cup of coffee or a glass of wine on the back porch, while watching the hummingbirds works for me.  Sharing a phone conversation with a good friend while unwinding from a busy day reminds me I am not truly alone as I return to a place of peace, self-awareness and the joy of laughter.

Life is Good!
 

 

Recognized

Author Notes
Those times sitting on the front porch, watching the sun go down and being with my family are favorite memories. I learned about who I am, from whence I came and how to prioritize what is important and what is noise beyond my control.
i still look to sitting on my patio with a friend in person or on the phone in the late evening to unwind and return to peace.

     

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