A month or so after we closed on the house, long before we began the renovation, a few friends came over with bottles of Prosecco and festive party glasses to toast to the future. Since the house was completely empty, and it was a mild fall day, the four of us sat on rickety benches on the front porch.
The porch was screened at the time, and the metal screens were coated with years of dirt. The floor, the benches, and the wooden trim were all painted black. Had it been anything other than a lovely day, our setting would have felt downright spooky.
When we finally moved in, more than a year later, it was February. In the doling out of furniture, as it was unloaded from storage pod and flatbed truck, all of the outside things landed on the porch: an iron table and chairs from my mother’s terrace garden, a wicker chair that my mother gave me when I bought my first house, and a set of old 50s-era metal furniture that we’d bought at the flea market, intending to restore, because, as Bernard said, Restoration Hardware had nothing on the original goods.
Come spring, when weather warmed enough to lure us outside but before our next door neighbors came to invite use of their yard, we arranged the porch as a play area for the children, since our own yard wasn’t much of a playing yard. We’d cut away the old screens by then and had painted the trim fresh, bright white. But the porch still felt… foreign. Stretching the entire width of the house, bigger than any of the interior rooms (or so it seemed), it wasn’t cozy like the porch of our old, clapboard house, where we’d often enjoyed cocktails with neighbors and dinner as a little family.
By the next summer, the children were old enough to want to roam, and we took seriously the invitation to use the next door neighbors’ yard as our own. The porch steps were the perfect place to sit and watch the sprinkler antics, and the porch was a perfect spot to dry everyone off, put on shoes, store sippy cups and snacks.
That’s how it started, as a convenience.
By the time Memorial Day weekend rolled around we had kind of a routine going with families on the block, so it was natural to invite them over and natural to gather on the porch. We arranged the furniture just enough to allow for setting up food and having enough seating. I bought a stack of melamine plates and some plastic drinkware, and we all, as I remember it, had a grand time.
Over the next two summers the porch, once a mere transition zone between outdoor play and indoor activities, started to take on a life of its own. It was the easiest place to set up and clean up for birthday parties, neighborhood potluck dinners, and group gatherings.
One summer when our children were too old for summer daycare and too young to be home alone, four families teamed up to create a summer camp for our children, each family taking a week or two so we could make it through the months away from school. The weeks at our house were spent on the porch, where we made flags and papier mache pinatas, using the rickety bench (re-painted) on which my friends and I had sat years earlier.
Part of its usefulness stemmed from its lack of glamour. The black concrete paint proved stubborn to remove, so we left it distressed-looking, covered with outdoor rugs. The rickety benches finally wore out, and we re-arranged things to use my mothers table and chairs as an outdoor dining area. We got a gas grill and spent most of the temperate weather days, spring through fall, eating dinner on the porch.
Screened by an enormous gardenia bush on one side, an enormous cedar tree on the other, the porch had an ideal mix of openness and privacy. Since our house sits on a hill, the porch was just out of sight-line for people walking dogs and riding bikes up and down the street.
Time kept moving. Between work schedules and sports practices, we found ourselves less often eating together every night. When we did sit down, either as a family or with friends, to eat on the porch, dinner took on a little more formality (for an outdoor dinner, anyway). The west end of the porch became the casual seating area; the east end became the dining area.
The children, in elementary school, helped with menu planning and table setting. We often invited neighbors to join us, so often that by October my son asked if we could have dinner in the kitchen and close the blinds so no one would know we were home.
As the children morphed into teenagers who had little interest in socializing with parents, the porch became my reading room each morning, cocktail room in the evenings when friends dropped by. Some years we planted bright annuals in pots and window baskets; other years we did not.
At the beginning of the pandemic, my daughter and I hauled to the porch all of the remaining boxes of my mother’s things, boxes that had been stashed away for 15 years because. We began separating things into KEEP, DONATE, and TRASH piles and made excellent progress until we got tired and the seemingly-simple decisions too hard.
“Mom, we look like hoarders,” my daughter said, gesturing to the boxes still on the porch, two months after we started the clean-out. We pledged to tackle one box a weekend, until they were all gone.
In the temporary reprieve of mid-May, when virus cases and positivity rates were dropping, a few friends came over to visit on the porch, where we could sit close enough but not too close, outside but still in a protected space.
The night before his graduation exercises, my son sat on the porch with four friends, chairs spaced appropriately, talking about their plans for the future.
“I’m so glad you could do that,” I said to him the next day, “I know you’ve missed your friends.”
“Yeah,” he said, “it’s pretty cool we had a way to get together. Thanks for letting me do that.”
This post is part of a series about our renovation of a house built in 1905 that we bought in 2003 from the woman who lived in it for 91 years. The first post in this series is “Jackie’s House.”