Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Shellback and other ramblings...

There is something “unused” and “clean” about the early morning air and really outside itself. .. before garage doors open and spew out the varied noises of the car engine, the beep of the security system, the sound of human voices, or the rattle and jerk of the garage door.

This morning, I spent an hour on my front porch, sitting on Madon’s bench (David’s mother’s front porch bench which we inherited), and I thought about how many times Madon must have sat on that same bench and prayed, thought about life, memories, losses and gains, and observed her neighborhood. Madon lived in her neighborhood for fifty-eight years, a house that she and David’s dad paid $7900 for in 1951.

Sitting on the front porch at 7:30 in the morning gives me great vista but little action. The humidity is thick today -- the sky gray -- and the chipmunks and birds were up and at ‘em, but the rest was quiet and lazy. A breeze rustle the leaves in the woods a little, but the air was fresh.

The gardenia by the porch has had a tough year -- too cold in April, too dry in May, and too hot in June. My gardenia bush never produced flowers except at the bottom where it managed to force out three or four blooms. The fragrance of gardenias did not grace me this year -- a smell that always reminds me of my mother who cut them, brought the flowers into the house, and placed them in water in small cut crystal bowls.-- the original and now politically correct green friendly air freshener. The usual verdant green leaves on the gardenia are black, and the ground beneath littered with yellowed leaves apparently giving up and dying in the strange weather of this spring and summer.

The mums show promise -- already small blooms are budding even though the foliage is not hearty or sturdy. It’s a tad early for mums -- they are, to me, a fall flower, their bright yellows and burnt orange reminiscent of that season’s color.

Weeds thrived in our lawn this year --- a variety of formidable species, determined to rule the yard. Weeds are the thugs of the landscape… gangly, clustered in groups, deep-seated, and dressed ugly.

Across the street, my neighbors’ newly sodded lawn shows the effect of little rain --- once it was lush and carpet like, fit for the eighteenth hole -- now it is spotty and brown -- bald spots showing….leaves on the many varieties of hydrangeas droopy and ragged on the edges. This was a poor year for the normally hearty bush -- neither of ours bloomed their usual hooray of blue and pink.

What have been happy in this wacky summer weather is the crepe myrtle -- they are puffed and bouffanted in their pink, white, and watermelon red blossoms like trees drawn by a kindergartner… round, plump, and poufed. We have a line of them as does our neighbor, and this has been the summer parade for them. They wave proudly and prettily like Texas debutantes from a float.

I’ve always been one to observe, to study, to look at what is around me, but now that I have time to note it more, I regret that I haven’t been more of a front porch sitter.

Since we have owned this house, I’ve been a back deck sitter. Under the umbrella and right next to the grill, I watch the birds fight for position on the feeders, the big birds jockeying for pecking order, the little ones conceding petulantly, and the hummingbirds darting about like a Blue Angel squadron as they swoop and fly at each other without abandon. I appreciate how they will hover at eye level with me like a Black Hawk helicopter -- wings whirring -- undaunted and unafraid. Keats ignores them totally -- she likes big birds -- but -- Tallulah has found them fascinating. Their quickness is right up her alley.

The front porch is quieter. Yes, the chipmunks scurry in the flower beds, digging, chirping, playing their yard games, and the birds chatter and chirp and make their noises, but the action is less and the pulse beat not as frantic.

Growing up -- our back porch (we had no deck) was a concrete slab with eight steps and was where we sat and listened to the Braves’ game broadcasted on WSB radio. This was at dusk or dark. With the radio propped in an open window, we would listen to the game, the Braves were such losers then even though Milo Hamilton tried to keep it interesting, and my siblings and I along with the neighbor’s kids would watch fireflies and eventually convince my mother to let us catch them in clean, glass canning jars or recycled mayonnaise jars with holes poked in the lids . The game was always to see who would fill them full of glowing bugs. We always let them go, but afterward, there was this funky bug smell on your fingers and hands from handling them, and, of course, if we tried to keep them too long -- they died, their glows winking out faintly and slowly and then for good.

We used to sit on that back porch, hard chairs pulled out from the kitchen table and talk, listen to the radio, swat mosquitoes, gossip, and play our ritual night games.

The front porch was the place to see things. People were outside then -- it was hot inside, few folks had air-conditioning ….. My daddy said later that air-conditioning was the single most significant catalyst of the break down of caring for and knowing your neighbors-- but that is a story for a different day.

People sat on their front porches -- in swings, on gliders -- or on what I thought was the most comfortable of the chairs --- the metal shellback with all of that give. I loved those chairs -- you could bounce around on them like a crack baby and no adult ever told you to “be still.”

In our neighborhood, folks walked places too. They walked to school, to the grocery store, to the mailbox at the top of the street, to the huge elementary school playground that housed two baseball fields, a basketball court, slides, a see-saw, and ten or fifteen swing.

If we were on our porch, they would wave, stop and talk, or come up and sit with us or sit on the steps. If adults showed up, the young people gave up their chairs so "they could sit" comfortably. When my parents first bought the house, the porch was screened in -- eventually, my mother took down the screen as she saw it as a barrier to others and "too expensive to keep well screened."

When I see my childhood home now, it was so close to the street. All houses were -- we we could talk to folks from the porch - - catch up on their family -- ask them “how’s your momma and them” and know details about their lives. Not in the nosy way, but in the neighborly way of concern.

My mother knew her neighbors well -- especially the women -- Pat, the neighbor on one side, Vera across the street, and Naomi, two doors down. She knew the names of their children, where they were from, where they went to church, and where they shopped. Yes, my mother and her neighbors would borrow “a cup of sugar” or “two eggs” or “a little milk” if they ran out right before supper. Front porches made good neighbors -- or neighbors made the front porch good. Either way -- it’s a lost part of the social network.

The front porch -- it didn’t used to be so quiet.

I love the serenity of my porch now, but I also would not mind the social milieu of the front stoop. The last time we really talked to my neighbors was when the house across the street caught fire and burned so badly -- they had to rebuild -- and at that moment -- it was a step back in time as we united with compassion for our neighbors -- with communal concern even though we didn't know their names.

But -- this morning -- it was just I, the chipmunks, the birds, and my own thoughts of the past.
It was Sunday -- I have to admit that I said a prayer or two --- one of which is my thankfulness for time. :)


  1. We could all learn something lovely from David's mother. L

  2. When I saw the word "shellback", I automatically thought of the line-crossing ceremony of the sailors as they crossed the Equator. The sailors that have never crossed the Equator were known as Pollywogs and were presented to "King Neptune". After initiation, they were then known as shellbacks.

  3. Muah, my readers, muah..

    Jessica -- thanks for that ... I guess I am a Pollywog -- good, cause I think most of my family are scalawags.


  4. I'm just a fountain of random knowledge, aren't I?

  5. 1) The phrase mentioned is enunciated by my paternal grandmother, "How's yer mommer 'n all them?"

    2) My maternal grandmother's name is Vera; it's Danish. :)

    3) Is this the 1950's you're talking about? It definitely sounds like the good 'ol days of Uh-Mare-Uh-Kuh.

    4) Big birds fighting for pecking order and feeders makes you sound like a modern day Walden commenting on the civil war of ants.

  6. A nostalgic and sweet trip for me. Thank you. This is what that book should be made of!

  7. Gardenias, eh? They are my absolute favorite. They remind me of my childhood. Sitting on our balcony, my dad tending to his Gardenias while my sibblings, mother and I drank rose syrup. Yumm!

    I used to keep one in a vase on my night table and the smell brought me comfort when things were a little rough on the streets of Beirut circa 1985, LOL.

    Our complex courtyard is littered with Gardenia bushes much to my content!

    My dad's gardenias always bloom beautifully. Mine? Not so much, probably because my thumbs are not so much green as they are blue...hee!

    Godd Lawd! The images you conjured up for us make me wanna pull up a Shellback alongside of yours and watch the squirrels forget where they buried their nuts.