The perch on the porch

The perch on the porch

The porch I treasure is not hidden away in the back of a house, lovely, quiet, peaceful, shaded, secluded, private, and lonely.

Yes, I know. People have different dreams about everything, even porches.

When I think of a porch, I have my own priorities. I know exactly what I have in mind because it is the actual porch of my memories, my fondest and most beautiful remembrances of things past. It was the front porch of what was once known as the Bauman House, in a tiny Catskills hamlet. My family lovingly and tenderly owned that hotel-turned-kuch-alein (cook alone) for more than 60 years. And when we spoke of it, we consistently called it by the name of the village it belonged to, Parksville. We were going, or coming, to or from Parksville. It happened in Parksville. That’s just the way it was.

What did that porch have that made it so important? It was covered. It had a roof to give us shade and protect us from the sun and, equally, from the rain. Is there anything more cozy than sitting on a rocker at twilight, on the front porch, and listening to the sound of heavy rain and distant thunder? The fierce raindrops pound above the porch, which is perfect protection from the elements, of which you, the sitter, the rocker, the safe one, are part and parcel. Delicious. It has been a long, long time since I sat on that porch, surrounded by people I loved. Yet it feels like yesterday.

From that porch, on those many rainy summer days, the cars cautiously drove by, windshields swishing, headlights beaming. A few stalwarts often quickly walked by with open umbrellas. From that perch, from the old green squeaky rocking chairs, we, who loved where we were, stayed as dry as a box of crisp crackers. Not soggy. Not even slightly damp.

And the smell. I can inhale it now. It is certainly the sweetest smell in the world. It is better than freshly baked bread. No expensive perfume is even comparable. It is wet grass and the amazing scents of soaked pine and dripping hemlocks and sweet maple. It is glorious, an aroma that I dream about often, the fragrance of the Catskill Mountains in the rain. I long for it still. But the building no longer stands. I know that the porch was the first part of the house to be demolished, its tinder carted away. The porch is buried, gone forever, but the memories remain vibrant and alive.

A front porch is a window on the world. It is not an escape, like a back porch. I don’t demean back porches, but they are different. At the Bauman House, our front porch was more than a porch; it was our living room. It was the place where we sat and talked for hours at a time. It was the setting where the mothers played mah jongg, and the fathers played poker. In those days, before women became liberated, there were no aberrations. The women had their game and the men had theirs. The twain never met.

Perhaps we kids truly were the wave of the future as we played Monopoly or Scrabble, boys and girls together. There was my friend Arthur, who sang as he strummed his guitar. And a long list of the dogs who enjoyed it as much as we humans.

There was room for everyone on the porch, and a mixture of ages from infancy to Mrs. Lipschitz who was in her upper 90s all those many years ago. I have never heard that she died. I fantasize that she is still among the living. She wore skirts below her ankles. Amazingly, she never tripped and fell. If she still lives, by now she is about 150 years old.

And please let me repeat myself. The porch was at its best on a rainy summer’s day. Or at night, when the fireflies blinked, the crickets played their song, the owls hooted, and mysterious eyes of little unseen creatures gently surrounded us.

The memories come pouring back, just like the glistening pounding rain. But some are not so good.

My Uncle Dave, a person I loved with tremendous intensity, was among the finest people ever to live, ever to walk upon this Earth, and I use those words with profound caution. Never was the world ever saturated with people like Dave. He was rare and remarkable. He was completely and totally good!

Dave was busy in Parksville. Pop, his father, my grandfather, always had jobs for him. Things had to be lifted, carried, repaired, painted, replaced. And then, after Pop abruptly died, the jobs mounted. They lined up during the week and kept Dave busy on the weekend, but never on Shabbat. And so it was that on a Sunday morning I witnessed Dave sitting on a rocking chair, knowing that there was much work to be done. I was concerned. Dave sat on Saturday, but Sunday was a work day for him.

I asked Dave if he was feeling okay. His answer still haunts me. “I’ll be all right.” Future tense, meaning I’m not all right now. I ran into the kitchen to my Aunt Fanny, his wife, who immediately had Dave driven to the ER at Liberty General Hospital. A mild heart attack was diagnosed. A few months later Dave was dead. He never would be all right. He would be, and is, fervently missed even now, more than a half century later.

And then there was Phoebe, my family’s first dog, a genius. After her retirement from being my grandmother’s companion, she moved in with us. It was a wonderful match. We were all in love with Phoebe, but she had her own favorite. The favorite was not any of us who did the custodial chores on her behalf, making sure she had plenty of outdoor time and a full rich diet of human leftovers to feast on, with a fresh cold-water chaser. This was a high-class dog, despite her very humble origins, who turned up her snout at dog food. We could all understand that. Compare Mom’s leftover soup flanken to Alpo. Well, you can’t!

Phoebe’s favorite person was Dad. She was smitten, and although she would have given her life for any of us, Dad stood apart. He was her property. Thus, each Friday, when the scent of Shabbat was in the air and she intuitively knew that Sam — Dad — soon would arrive in Parksville, she perched herself on the corner of the porch and wouldn’t be moved. She lay there for endless hours, staring at the parking lot, awaiting her love. We all recognized this weekly event and would even feed into it with the phrase, spouted thousands of times, “Sam is coming.” It always elicited even more excitement in Phoebe until the glorious moment when she saw Katrinka, his car, pull in.

Then, no matter how old she was, she would literally fly to the car, her tail creating a whirlwind, to greet him with unforgettable joy and excitement, so unforgettable that I, at age 83, but then a child, remember it vividly. Yes, Phoebe loved her Sam!

You may ask how Phoebe knew it was Friday. The clues were everywhere if you were a smart, street-bred mongrel in a Jewish family. There was divine chicken soup gently simmering on multiple stoves. The moms had their hair in curlers so they could be beautiful when they greeted their husbands. There were the delicious smells of succulent roasting beef from Kaplan’s Butcher Shop, challah baking (in the most industrious kitchens; otherwise bought and magnificent as well) and a palpable air of festivity. Laundry was removed from the clotheslines, and bedrooms were spic and span. But perhaps most telling were the newspapers resting on the newly scrubbed kitchen floors. No one was ever able to explain that phenomenon to me. Scrubbed, yes, but why the newspapers? I still don’t understand it — but Phoebe knew what all of this meant.

It meant that Sam was coming, and she was to spend the day on the glorious front porch awaiting his arrival.

And so it was.

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Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!

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