My Front Porch Has Changed, but Its Importance Hasn’t

published Aug 30, 2016
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(Image credit: Dorothy Bendel)

Growing up, I couldn’t imagine the sun beating down more intensely anywhere else in the world than it did during those summers on Long Island. After an hour playing baseball in the street and shouting “CAR!” every 10 minutes, I would retreat to a folding chair on my front porch.

The porch wasn’t grand. It didn’t wrap around the house or include ceiling fans like I had seen in movies, but when the heat and ever-changing street sport rules became too much, I could remove myself from the game yet still keep close watch and shout from the comfort of my front porch.

I would eek open the front door and tiptoe into the house to grab an orange Fla-Vor-Ice pop from the pile of rainbow-colored treasures in our freezer. My siblings and I always fought over the orange ones. My grandmother had to dole them out like WWII rations. The blue ones were always the last to go, lingering among frozen microwave meals until someone got too hot to care what flavor it was supposed to be.

(Image credit: Dorothy Bendel)

During the deepest weeks of summer, when the previous school year felt entombed in the past and the impending school year was still just an abstract thought, I kept a mound of silver change on the front porch floor. It was easy enough to collect cans from the neighborhood, especially if someone abandoned a Pathmark shopping cart within eyesight, and trade them for nickels at the beverage store down the street.

I sat on the porch and planned battles with the neighbor’s kids until the Mister Softee ice cream truck arrived within earshot. Our plans for total neighborhood domination may have been brilliant, but all was lost once we heard that familiar song jingling through the streets.

I remember destroying my usual vanilla-with-chocolate-syrup-in-a-cup order on that front porch as the sun melted the waxed begonias my grandmother insisted could survive the heat — the same ones she replanted year after year. I sat with the kids who were able to wrangle some change from their parents and talked about how long the summer felt.

Our mailman, a skinny chain-smoker, would stride up to the mailbox by the front door and ask me about my day while a cigarette gripped his bottom lip and bounced with each syllable. I always wondered how it managed not to fall to the ground. Now I wonder how many more years he was able to stick around. I sometimes imagine him walking up those steps to deliver mail to the family that lives there now.

As I grew older and discovered the joy of the telephone, the front porch was a place to stretch the phone cord to its limit and close the front door just enough to insulate myself from adults. There, I could talk to anyone I wanted, whenever I wanted, about anything I wanted. Nothing was silly or off-limits. There, the outside world felt safer and freer than inside.


Now I live in a garden-style city apartment in DC, although there is no garden to speak of. I don’t have a front porch. Instead, I sit on the front steps of our apartment building. The roof doesn’t extend far enough to provide shade all day, but a few clouds pass by from time to time to offer a temporary reprieve from the August sun.

My daughter crouches down on the hot sidewalk, a piece of fat chalk in her hand, and draws hopscotch boards that end at the steps where I watch. My son balances on a tree stump that has existed in the front yard long before we moved in. I sit on the highest step to get the best view.

Throughout the summer, we sit on our steps and meet new neighbors or pet dogs on their daily walks. Sometimes, my youngest child sits with me just to look up at the sky.

I might not have enough space to unfold a chair, but maybe square footage isn’t what makes a front porch at all. As I see it, a front porch is a meeting place, a place of refuge, a place to interact with our community, and a place to survey the kingdom of childhood.