After Dinner was Family Time
Many of my favorite memories of childhood are those very special quiet times when family, neighbors and friends joined together on the front porch after the evening’s meal. This was a signal that the day’s work had been done and a time of relaxation brought us to a readiness for a good night’s sleep. Grownups and kids shared the events of the day and kept everyone up on the latest. The practice was not reserved for only adults, but often included the whole family. Neither was this practice a rare local event, but it was a universal practice common across the face of America. It happened in big cities and small communities, alike. It happened in front of brown-stone row houses in New York, and on large verandas on the Hudson, or on a simple stoop on Cass Avenue in Detroit. It happened on the west coast and in the deep-south. This marked the end of a hot summer’s day. For the adults, it was a time to watch children play a game of stickball in the street, or see them chase the wayward lighting bugs. It was also an opportunity to visit with neighbors and passersby’s.
When I was a child I loved those times when everyone would visit with each other on their porches telling stories or swapping jokes. It was here that family history was passed down and funny stories were passed along. Laughter would ring out as animated storytellers recanted yet another wild tale. Even as a young child, I hung on every word a favorite relative shared. I didn’t want it to get dark and dreaded when mom would announce ‘bedtime.’ I never wanted it to end. We lived by a motto ‘Work hard during the day, but always take time to enjoy the evenings.’ It was as if God himself had set aside our evening visits.
Some of my friends lived in more rural areas, so electricity was sparse, or seen as an unnecessary expense. Lights were saved until darkness ruled. Meanwhile, before and during dusk when visibility inside the house was poor, the family migrated outside to the porch where they could see. They put off turning on electric lights, or for some, lighting the kerosene lamps. It was a good time to plan tomorrow’s activities and share any problems, difficulties, or family decisions needing to be discussed.
For some, usually the ladies, after supper was also a good time to knock out some light work, such as shelling stringed beans. Since it was cooler outside, and the family would be there, there might well be an abundance of hands to share in the light labor. I remember when I reached into granny’s apron for a handful of ‘half-runner,’ or ‘Kentucky Wonder’ string beans, I would go to work making granny proud of my stringing skills. Even while working I would sit back and listen to the funny things that had happened to friends of relatives. Sometimes they told everyone about the challenges that they were facing. Sometimes, I’d hear stories of things that happened years earlier when the grownups were still young. It was not unusual for wild story or two to crop up concerning an ancestor. This is where I learned about uncles, aunts, cousins, and great, great grand-parents.
I was proud when the occasional word would be brought up informing us that a friend or neighbor needed help. As illnesses, or misfortunes, affected them it also affected us. I remember following up to visit them, or to make plans for helping. The extra work for some required us to help bring in a friend’s harvest, or to split some wood. Perhaps we could find a way for them to earn extra money if that was the issue. Mankind shows it character best when we reach out to help someone.
Friends or neighbors dropping by for a porch visit was a way of life and was always welcomed. When I was growing up I remember that on some porches someone would break out guitars, a banjo, or maybe an autoharp, or dulcimer. That was a sign that the neighborhood was in for an evening impromptu concert. While the musicians sawed, hammered, and picked the kids would dance. One friend of mine could play anything by ear, whether a string, brass, woodwind, or percussion. I envied him since I had to learn and practice to play anything.
The thing that made these evening events possible was the ‘porch’ itself. There’s no doubt that these roofed attachments were important, despite their extra cost, because most houses had them. Beyond that day’s fashion, they were a ‘welcome’ sign to anyone passing by.
I remember when granny would come out a couple of times during the day and sweep the porch free of coal cinders left from passing coal-fired trains. Our home was only a block from the C&O railway that transported coal from the mines to the coal piers in Virginia. We had two steam-fired passenger trains and several steam-fired freight trains that went through town sending heavy blankets of smoke and cinders. Cinders blanketed our little town. Granny swept the porch to insure it stayed clean enough for the guests that might come by later in the evening.
Porches were also good for other things. I remember playing blocks and toy cars on porches on rainy days. Sometimes I would stretch out on the porch swing to read the latest editions of comic books. I’d take little notice of anything else. I would often slink back and doze off. A nice porch was a gift of comfort to this kid.
I remember playing on a neighbor’s front porch one evening long after dark. The neighbor’s son and I could see down the main street several blocks. Even from that distance my friend could name the brand of the oncoming car merely by the headlight location. In those days car brands looked different. I thought that was the point in having different models. Someone told me that shape and appearance was a marketing decision that kept up the demand for favored models and made it clear when you owned last year’s car. Today, automobiles are hard to tell apart even in broad daylight, and people are not put to shame for driving an older vehicle.
There were times when not only was the whole family hanging out on the porch, but neighbors would join in the fun. People would go out for an evening stroll, stopping for visits at several homes throughout the neighborhood. It was common to tour the neighborhood, maybe meeting and talking with new friends.
Today, we’re all too busy with our separate lives and interests. The appliances that were marketed to save us time did, but we found other busy work and let the socializing go. We glued ourselves to televisions, video games, cell phones, and in some cases our jobs. The stores that used to close at five are now open late, if they close at all. Today, people live in houses or apartments for years and don’t even know their neighbors. We are the losers. The closeness of family and the richness of life was measured by our friends and our experiences. The front porch was our antenna. This has disappeared in favor of using smart phones or playing computer games. Kids today understand and prefer social media over playing tag, stickball, or hide and seek. It’s almost as if kids grow up instantly into little adults.
New house designs of today reflect the lack of importance of having a ‘real’ front porch. That amounts to a sign that we have pulled up the ‘welcome mat.’ While many homes have decks or patios they are rarely used. They are often ignored except for maybe one or two cookouts on summer holidays. Even so, they are typically attached to the rear of the dwelling. This does not particularly invite passersby to visit but insinuates a desire for privacy. This social change signifies different values. We have substituted newer, vastly different lifestyles than those of our forefathers, but at the expense of some that added real value to life. To get to the point, television, air conditioning, technology, and putting family income over interaction has replaced socialization.
The mid-forties through the sixties was a time before sedation by television. While TV had been invented and was available to a few with limited programing, and radio still had its charm, we were slowly pulled into the living rooms and off the porch. Once a time to enjoy day’s end, this special time has been lost to the newer generations. That time to meet, laugh, and share, has disappeared so we are lucky to even see each other. Sadly, that is an important loss that our children and grandchildren will not enjoy.
My suggestion is to take at least one day a week to have a family time right after dinner. It would be a struggle and will surely meet resistance, but family need to learn from each other and bond in shared memories. That’s our legacy, friends, and pretty much all we can build upon.