On this page, you can read essays that people sent in, relating to the monthly challenge, “On The Porch.”
Music in the Open Air (Concerts on the Porch)
By Michael Yanega
Music was always been a vital part of the life of our family. Only one person of the seven in the household, my youngest sister, never played any kind of musical instrument — unless you count the radio. Only my mother had musical training, and she could only play from sheet music; the rest of us played everything by ear. There was almost always a radio, or record player, on somewhere in the house, if someone wasn’t playing the Hammond chord organ in our living room, or the harmonica.
In the early-to-mid-60’s, I had a tabletop Emerson FM radio with a wooden cabinet and a decent speaker. It had been a high school graduation present, and it was my constant companion up in my room, as I did college homework, invented board games, drew imaginary animals, or read books. It was usually tuned to a classical music station, because music without words was less distracting as background music. I learned to appreciate classical music by keeping a log of the composers, selections, and my own evaluation of the music, using an A-F grading scheme. My favorite composers were Ralph Vaughn Williams, Johannes Brahms, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Aaron Copland.
My room upstairs got quite hot in the Summer, so I figured out how I could slip an electrical extension cord under the screen of one of the narrow windows alongside the picture window, and have my radio outside to play it on the porch. We used our front porch all the time in good weather. It had a two-foot high brick wall, just the right height for resting our feet on it while we sat in our plastic-webbed aluminum folding chairs.
Music outdoors sounded completely different than it did inside my room. With no walls to reflect the sound it seemed purer and crystalline in its clarity. The radio was transformed into something more like an orchestra in a bandshell in my mind. I had to be reminded that maybe the neighbors wouldn’t like the music as much as I did, and learn to keep the volume at a compromise level that let me enjoy it without too many others hearing it too.
Around the same time I had discovered an hour-long weekly broadcast of instrumental versions of show tunes and pop standards that I knew my mother and I would love, and on Saturday nights in Summer we sat out on our front porch and listened to this program while twilight turned to darkness.
On these Summer Concert Nights my Mom would make herself a cup of instant coffee while I set up my radio, and then we would tune in the station with “our show,” as it became known, and listen in silence to the music we loved. Fireflies came out as the sun disappeared, adding their fluorescent Morse code to the ethereal beauty of the experience.
We both had at least some notion of the lyrics for these songs and we imagined them in our heads, thinking of the storylines of the musicals that they were from. Sometimes I would look over at my Mom and see her eyes closed and a broad smile on her face as she pretended to conduct the music.
It’s one of my favorites memories of our time together.
Childhood On the Porch
Our “front” porch was on the right side of our house off the kitchen. It was a big slab of cement over our cellar and coal bin with no railing, about ten feet square. And, a drop of ten feet awaited any poor soul who chanced to go over the edge. I mention this because we children skated on that porch, sharing one pair of old skates that our neighbors gave us. These “strap-on” skates had no straps! The three of us, ages 6, 8 and 10, took turns standing on the skates, then making them roll by pushing our legs in and out. One time my big brother Conrad joyously skated off the edge of the porch. Always the daredevil, he didn’t get hurt but scared us to death! The one time our neighbors invited us to a skating rink, we were objects of incredulous stares for our odd way of skating!
This roomy slab of porch also served as a stage. My meager dramatic and musical talents resulted in producing musicals. My two enthusiastic brothers and I would burst out in song (very recognizable) and march and dance for dramatic effect, often swinging our arms and clicking our fingers. Recognition and appreciation for our performances was sparse. One time we assaulted Grandpa with it, while Mom died laughing, and father — a violinist –grimaced. Our dear grandpa said he thought it was good!
My Mother’s First English Word
(Learned on the Porch)
By Debra Valpey
My mother, Carin Brown Sahlinger, born in l926, grew up in Ballard, a Scandinavian neighborhood in Seattle. Her mother, Anna, was a Swedish immigrant and a single mother, quite unusual for those days. She was also a skilled hairdresser who specializing in the Marseille wave technique, and in the process of purchasing the beauty salon at the high end Olympic Hotel where she worked as a hairdresser. Because of Anna’s position there, my mother did not suffer financially during the Great Depression. She was, however, quite socially isolated, as Anna wanted to protect her from the so-called baser elements of common American society.
Carin’s grandmother had also immigrated from Sweden after being widowed there, and lived with Anna, little Carin and a few of her immigrant sons, until she died tragically in the mid 1930’s. This dear elder lady served as Carin’s constant companion and caretaker while Anna was as work. They even had a live-in housekeeper, so Carin and her beloved “Mama Ka” were free to spend their days any way they wished. Everyone spoke Swedish exclusively at home and Carin and her Mama Ka enjoyed the greatest affection and intimacy with one another. Every morning Mama Ka would dress and groom Carin in the most meticulous manner in in fashion of the day, for a good little Swedish girl… starched dress, clean pinafore, braided hair wound around her head, ribbons, you name it. Then they would decide together how to spend their precious day. Mama Ka was my mother’s first true love.
One of their favorite pastimes was to sit on the porch in their small Ballard home and watch the chain gain working on road repair and ripping up train tracks. The chain gang workers were mostly dark-skinned, a detail that fascinated my fair-skinned mother. They were also wonderfully rhythmic in their work. She liked to watch them swing their tools and flex their muscles as they prepared to undergo an especially difficult task. She liked to wave to them and enjoyed their return greetings which were often thwarted by the gang bosses. Their language also intrigued her. So many sounds that were different from those in Swedish. And new words! One day she noticed that there was a special word that they uttered frequently and with great enthusiasm. Little Carin listened carefully and practiced this exquisite and melodious new word. She figured it must either be the name of something or a way of describing something very important. She vowed that this word would be her first English word, the first of many to come.
So she practiced, all around the house. She said this word with various inflection and accented different syllables from time to time to test the beauty of the word’s sounds and its intoxicating rhythms. When Anna came home from work, Mamma Ka explained that little Carin had a new word. Mama Ka did not know what the word meant, but she thought that Anna might. She explained that Carin started saying the word after they has been watching the workers who were doing road repair just down the street.
My grandmother inquired as to what the word sounded like. My mother was called into the living room to recite her new word. Both women turned their attention to five year old Carin who smiled and carefully enunciated in her sweet sing song voice, her special new word…sonovabitch. She said it five different ways and then looked to her mother and grandmother for acknowledgment.
That was the last day that my mother was allowed to sit outside on the porch when the chain gang was in town. 7/25/13
The Front Porch
By Robert Greeves
It happened in Lewistown, Montana, when I was about seven years old. My family was living in Inkom, Idaho, and we had made the long trip to attend a family reunion. When my mother went to visit her father, my cousin and I were the only ones who wanted to go with her. My grandfather had not left his home for ages but family members who lived in Lewistown did visit him regularly. When I first saw him he appeared very old and very crippled from rheumatoid arthritis.
I had heard many stories about him when he was young and owned a farm in Flat Willow about 25 miles east of Lewistown. My mother and two of her younger brothers were born on that farm.
I recall my grandfather sitting in a rocking chair on his front porch. He was wrapped in a blanket even though it was a warm summer day. He was so weak he couldn’t even raise his head. I remember going up the stairs with my cousin to be introduced to him. This was the first and only time I would see him alive. There is a picture of my cousin and me standing on the stairs looking at my grandfather.
The house grandfather was living in with his wife, Minnie, was loaned to them by the city. The house overlooked the city’s only cemetery. On our way home, mother told us that it was my grandfather’s job to keep an eye on things and that is why he was sitting there on his front porch.
Grandpa was in his late 50’s and died not long after that visit. He was buried in the cemetery he had watched over when he was alive. I visited his grave in 1989 when I drove my parents to one of their high school reunions. After the death of her husband, my grandmother Minnie was lonely and came to Inkom to live with us for about a year. Then she headed back east to Baltimore to visit her family for the first time since leaving when she had married. I don’t think her parents were happy with her marriage to Jacob as he was not a very important person.
Minnie had met Jacob when he was a conductor on a street car in Baltimore. The wind was blowing one day when Minnie got on the street car and the wind blew her hat to one side. As she ducked to catch it, she broke out in a smile. Jacob saw her smile and thought she was smiling at him! He was, after all, a handsome man but poor having recently immigrated from Ireland. He was in his early twenties when he first met Minnie. He was very taken with her, but not with the fact that she came from a rich and important family which included two doctors and several ministers. Minnie and Jacob started dating and a short time later they were married.
Jacob and Minnie had come west on a train. It was a long five day trip and they brought with them their baby boy. When the train stopped to take on water and fuel, the conductor showed Minnie a nearby creek. Here she could wash the baby’s diapers and then hang them out the train windows to dry. Minnie and Jacob would eventually have five children, my mother being their third.
Jacob’s brother had previously moved to Lewistown. He owned a dance hall and offered Jacob a job. Jacob turned the job down and instead made a down payment on a farm in Flat Willow, about 25 miles east of Lewistown. He lived on the farm until he became so crippled with arthritis that he had to go north about 40 miles to a very small town called Gilt Edge. Here Minnie would support them by working in the local post office. She was the only employee. I visited Gilt Edge with my mother in 1991 and while there I found a postcard stuck on an old wall board in the building that had served as the post office.
Jacob didn’t get much money for the farm and was glad when a Lewistown city official offered him the job of watching the cemetery. So they moved from Gilt Edge to Lewistown where I met him sitting there all bundled up in a blanket on his front porch.
I have black and white photographs taken of Jacob and Minnie before they left Baltimore. I have other pictures of Jacob plowing a field on his farm with a pair of horses. One of the pictures includes him and all five of his children. I even had a painting of him and his farm, painted by his oldest son. And I have the picture of him sitting on the porch when I last saw him.
I am sorry now that I didn’t have the chance to see my grandfather again. I think he would have had a lot of good stories to tell me while sitting together on his front July 24, 2013
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