The Old Front Porch
I sit on the step, on the hard concrete that stays cool despite the muggy July nights, and I wait for him: my prince, my white knight, the man who will drive just past my house and stop at the stop sign. He will turn his head and see me sitting here, softly illuminated by the street lamp at the intersection and be struck – LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT – such that he will be compelled to round the block. Oh, the romance of it! Though a bit shy (as am I), on his second circuit, he will speak, must speak, and we will both remember this moment as magical.
It can still happen, I tell myself, even after all the fruitless years of my sitting out here, waiting and watching for him. The time just wasn’t right before; perhaps I was too impatient, or perhaps he wasn’t ready. So I gave up hope and left my home for a man whose past needed running away from. We fled to the tropics and together we made a life and a child. I tried convincing myself that my life there was perfect, then good, then . . . good enough. Finally I realized that complacency isn’t a substitute for joy. Joy! I wanted joy in my life. I returned home hoping to find joy and the passion I’d always promised myself would fill my heart. Now as both my child and my elderly mother sleep inside the house, I sit here and wonder if my soul mate will pass by my porch on this night.
So many hours during my early teens, I pulled down the shades, and in the half-light of my bedroom, wallowed in the pain of unspoken love, unrequited love, rejected love, lost love; expressed through the outpourings from my stereo and blasting through the yearning and pain in my own soul. Art Garfunkel’s “Looking for the Right One,” a repeat offender on special occasions when my aloneness felt unbearable, broke me into pieces. My mother, wise in so many ways despite her limited education, never invaded my privacy. Only when I finally emerged from my pit of despair into the daylight, ragged and tear-stained, did she approach.
“Get out,” she encouraged me. “You won’t meet anyone in your room. And you need to smile more.”
Sometimes, when my adolescent self pity hopelessly prophesied nothing more than a lifelong wasteland of solitude, I went to the back porch, tucked into a corner of the house and partially hidden from Forest Street’s few passersby, where I continued to sulk. However, sometimes I would head for the front porch, more of a concrete stoop, because of its proximity to the traffic that passed by on North Common Street and because a spark of hope had been lit in me that IT. COULD. HAPPEN. Right here in this very spot where I now sit. I knew it then as I know it now because it had happened once, long ago, to my mother.
The chipped and weathered clapboards that are now covered by faded yellow aluminum siding would have been a smooth light gray in 1937 and the porch a grand wooden farmer’s porch that wrapped around the Martin house’s front corner, its railings surrounded by hedges and lilacs. A porch swing hung slightly off to the side, partially hidden by roll-up blinds, but directly in front were the captain’s chair that belonged to my grandfather, Homer, and the rocker in which my grandmother, Annie, spent many hours overseeing the neighborhood. When my grandparents first bought the house in 1920, Annie finally pregnant with my mother after years of trying, the roads had not yet been paved, and rows of boards served as a sidewalk. As the first house in Little Canada to be converted to a single-family, in the section of North Brookfield originally built for the factory workers and their families - and the merchants too - the working class people who were immigrants or first generation Americans, the Martins’ corner home had achieved a certain amount of status in the neighborhood, its matriarch herself a merchant, owner and operator of Pauline’s Dry Goods, a notions store that thrived in the house’s downstairs half that would later be called “The Other Side.” Annie’s store had a large picture window in front, shaded by a striped cloth awning and its own little porch that Homer kept scrupulously swept. The store’s private front and rear entrance indicated that the house had originally been built for just such a purpose, the large open space accessible to its owner from inside the main house by way of one door on the first floor, tucked into the end of a short hallway so as to be hidden from view of the other rooms.
At sixteen, my mother had already dropped out of school. At first, she secretly worked in the asbestos factory where Homer had been hired as soon as he’d been old enough and would work until he could work no more. He had already started to cough and had nothing good to say about the place but felt he was too old at fifty four to begin another career. Once the deception was found out, after weeks of looking over her shoulder and ducking around corners, my mother was forced to quit her job at the factory (“No daughter of mine will work in that filth,” Homer had exclaimed), but she refused to return to school. Annie compromised and hired her daughter to stock shelves and wait on customers in the store that had been named after her.
The day the front porch worked its magic, Pauline had stepped out of the store to take her break, get some fresh air, perhaps sneak a cigarette. A pretty girl with her father’s dark hair and eyes and her mother’s fair Irish skin, my mother would have taken in everything she could see from her vantage point on the porch, the front porch, not the little store porch where Annie would be keeping watch. From here, Pauline could see all the way down North Common Street and around the Town Common, up North Common Street towards St. John, and part way down Forest Street towards the Kelley family home where her mother had grown up. Polly, as her friends called her, would have missed nothing, so she certainly saw the strange car even before it approached the house. Automobiles were not numerous in this neighborhood. The Martins themselves never owned one, and most people walked where they needed to go or paid for a ride in Mr. Bush’s taxi, a real taxi now that he’d retired his buggy and team of horses. Those few cars that did routinely pass through Little Canada, like Polly’s Uncle “Bun” Martin’s Ford, would have caused only a passing glance.
But this, a strange black car, driving slowly as if unsure of the area, this required Polly’s full attention. She waited, watching as it rounded the corner down by the Common and headed her way. As it approached, she demurely looked down. She wouldn’t be caught acting as if she cared. But the car slowed, the engine idling, and despite her resolve, she looked up.
Three young men, a bit older than she, all with thick, dark, curly hair and swarthy complexions, brothers as it turned out, Italians from Brookfield, all waved at her. She blushed, looking over her shoulder to make sure that Annie hadn’t somehow seen. Annie still hadn’t forgiven her older daughter Ruthie for eloping ten years earlier and would no doubt take unkindly to the impertinence of three boys from out of town approaching her younger daughter. The black car, driven by the oldest Faugno boy, continued up the street, but not before Polly got a good look at the boy in the back seat, the best looking of the three with his broad shoulders and dazzling smile.
All that afternoon in the store, Polly fantasized about the boy in the back seat. Would she ever see him again? Annie had had to raise her voice to be acknowledged, and Polly had mistakenly overcharged Mrs. Adams for her purchases, counting the buttons twice.
The next afternoon, Polly kept an eye on the clock, and at precisely the same time as the day before, she asked if she could go outside for a breath of air. She waited on the front porch, her heart pounding, hoping for, but simultaneously fearing, sight of the black car. And suddenly, there it was, rounding the corner of North Common Street. This time, she looked off in the distance, with an expression she hoped passed for nonchalance on her face. This time, when the car slowed, the boys spoke: “Hello, hello.” She smiled and waved, just a little; after all, she was a good girl.
Then the boy in the back seat leaned out of his window. “What’s your name?” he asked. Polly looked into his deep dark eyes and fell in love, right there in front of God and the whole neighborhood. As if in a trance, she stepped off the porch onto the narrow boardwalk and up to the car. Johnny Faugno, the boy who would within the year become her husband and then the father of her son Jay, reached out for her hand and she let herself be swept up in the magic.
That’s how my mother’s life as an adult began, right here on this porch. Many changes have taken place in the house since that day almost sixty years ago when my mother fell in love. Pauline left home but didn’t go far, only a couple of houses up the street to a second floor apartment to begin her married life. Four years later, when Annie died of pneumonia, my mother moved back home with her husband and son Jay, having already realized the mistake of her marriage, and there she stayed, through the death of her father, her bitter divorce from Johnny, Jay’s departure for the Marines, and her remarriage to the man who would be my father.
In 1962, when I was three, my mother decided to renovate the house she had bought from my grandfather in 1943 for one dollar. Keeping the deed in her name alone as she had promised Homer, she took out a mortgage, and the work began. My mother had always resisted Annie’s love of the old-fashioned (along with her love of the color grey); once, as a small child, she’d been severely punished for taking one of Homer’s saws to the headboard of her bed in her attempt to “make it modern.” Now as the well-established owner of the house with money coming in from her new husband’s job and whatever she earned by taking in children while their mothers worked, Pauline could finally afford to make the changes she’d dreamed of. Interior improvements included new appliances for the kitchen and a new full bathroom upstairs in mint green and lemon yellow. She chose yellow again for the house’s exterior color, aluminum siding that the salesman promised would last forever and never need to be painted. So the weathered grey clapboards were covered up, the modern hiding the out-dated.
But my mother did not stop there. The wooden farmer’s porch, once the grand gathering place of the neighborhood where Homer had sat and Annie had rocked, where all the cousins had played while their mothers - Annie and her sisters and sister-in-law - had gossiped, and where my mother had first fallen in love, now sagged in desperate need of repair. The steps came loose, the lattice rotted. Pauline decided it had to come down, along with the old store porch and the back porch. Might as well make a clean sweep of it.
Poured concrete stoops replaced all the porches and each entryway was framed by silver aluminum side scrolls that held up the silver aluminum awnings to provide some shade from the sun (though not much relief from its heat). My mother wanted a raised flowerbed, so most of the space formerly occupied by the old farmer’s porch became an L-shaped garden for her portulacas and pink plastic flamingos.
The front stoop (I refuse to call it a porch) is just big enough to fit the two matching aluminum-framed chairs my mother bought, their seats and backs of plastic webbing. Chairs that fold for convenience and are still kept in the garage until needed. As a child, on those rare occasions when my parents would sit here together on a summer evening, I had to sit on the steps because there was no room for a third chair. Dad would send me three doors down to Silveo’s store for ice cream cones: chocolate chip for him, chocolate for me, and frozen pudding or rum raisin on a sugar cone for my mother. I’d be proud to go, to be trusted by my father with getting this errand right, and I hurried back before the ice cream began to drip. Of course, once Dad began his second shift job at the steel factory, a third chair became unnecessary. Ma’s treat for our shared nights on the front stoop was individual store-bought sponge cakes (she called them shortcake and not until much older did I learn the difference) smothered in Birds Eye frozen strawberries and garnished with Reddi-Whip. By then, Silveo had died, and his store had become a fix-it shop.
On this summer night, long after my father’s death, as my mother and daughter both sleep upstairs, I mourn the old front porch but haven’t given up on its magic. The foundation is still here, only covered up by the concrete. No matter that the love she’d felt the day my mother met Johnny proved to be false, the spark had ignited right here, and I believe it could again. I make a promise to the house: someday, when I am the owner, I will restore its character by tearing off the faded aluminum siding grown chalky with age and give new life to the grey clapboards underneath. I will place new darker grey shutters around windows that no longer have shutters, and, most importantly, I will rebuild all the old porches, especially the grand farmer’s porch, using the black and white photographs in Annie’s album as my reference. I’m so busy fantasizing about the changes I will one day make that I don’t notice the headlights until they’ve already rounded the corner of the slumbering street.
I hear the car before I see it, and the sound of the purring engine jars me back to my earlier fantasy. A lone car slowly approaching in the middle of a sultry summer night – can this be the man I’ve waited for? I do not turn away, as my mother did when she was sixteen. I’m divorced with a child; I don’t need to be demure. At the same time, if my soul mate is rolling up the deserted street, I don’t want to seem desperate despite my rapidly beating heart. I assume what I imagine is a casual posture, and I wait.
As the vehicle nears, I can see the bar across its roof. One of the cruisers just making its rounds. I no longer know who’s on the force because I’ve been gone too long, returning only for visits. But instead of passing the house, the cruiser stops and the driver’s door opens. Almost instantly, I recognize the man even after almost twenty years and despite his full uniform and the
dim glow of the street light.
“Joey Hollway! I didn’t know you were a cop!” Is this fate? Is Joey, a former classmate and before that a neighborhood playmate, “The One?” I stand up.
“Donna! Long time no see.” He gives me a hug and I look for . . . something. In him, in me.
We start to make small talk: what we’ve been doing since high school mostly, and then he says he’s divorced. Hmm. As he speaks, I remember the Joey from junior high, curly hair, laughing eyes, a bit on the stout side but certainly not fat. Joey was one of the “nice boys,” a little shy and liked by the teachers because he was always willing to help when needed. In eighth grade, we had home room together, and I noticed that only he seemed to pray during the moment of silence. Every morning right after the Pledge of Allegiance, Mrs. Lundeberg instructed us to take a moment of silence, and I’d see Joey bow his head. I knew he wasn’t trying to show off because he stood in the back of the room. At the end he always crossed himself. When I told my mother, she said, “Joey’s a good boy. Good family.”
Now as he and I shoot the breeze on my mother’s front stoop, I think I could do worse but simultaneously I realize that there’s no spark here, for either of us. Just two old friends catching up.
When the small talk ends, Joey tips his hat and turns toward the cruiser. I wait a moment until the car is out of sight, then go in the house.
Donna Girouard is an Assistant Professor of English at Livingstone College in Salisbury, NC, and faculty adviser of the college's literary-arts magazine. Her essays can be found in Storm Cellar Quarterly, Embodied Effigies, Apeiron Review, Sugar Mule, The Oklahoma Review and Border Crossing. Her essay, "Doppelgangers," was nominated for the 2013 Pushcart Prize.
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