Letter From Michiana: Closing the porch

By David Hoppe

At some point during every November I close the porch. This is a melancholy task. It means summer is done.

During warm weather we often find ourselves saying the porch is the best room in our house. It’s not quite a square, surrounded on three sides by screens, topped with a flat roof.  It stands on stilts sunk in concrete, which gives it the feel of a treehouse. Dogwood, oak and maple are a whisper away.

Although it’s a modest size, the porch is a gathering place. Friends and neighbors, house guests, my wife and I — we all seem to settle there eventually, the most intrepid among us have even spent the night. By day, you can sit amongst the birds and catch breezes off the lake. In the evening find yourself enveloped by a sundown chorus of singing tree frogs and cicadas.

It’s a fantastic perch in stormy weather. We can’t see but a glint of the lake, but we feel its presence. First is usually the wind. It sets the trees in motion, swaying in time to the sound of waves, feasting on the shore. The light changes, gaining acuity as clouds swell and darken. Lightning thrills the air, instantly cracking space, followed by time’s growl a beat or two afterward.

I like the way storms can make us quiet, put us in our place. But the porch also inspires conversation. We tend to open up out there; maybe it’s the effect of fresh air on our thoughts. It gets the cramps out of our skulls, welcomes memory and massages the imagination.

When I close the porch, I strongarm the furniture into a rough huddle in the middle of the floor. It’s an odd lot, misfit pieces from across at least three generations. Each one allows for reverie, the conjuring of voices, faces, moments past. I remember sitting out there with three dear friends after my parents’ memorial service — each friendship made during a different stage of my life, each one irreplaceable. We drank without hurry and spoke of things we remembered without pretense.

In winter the porch is exposed to the elements. I have to crowd everything close enough so that furnishings that usually invite stretching and ease can all be covered by a blue plastic tarp. That tarp is as sure a sign of seasonal change as gold on a maple tree. It’s been put to use this way every year for as long as I care to remember. I pin it down with bricks, one rescued from a Wrigley Field renovation, that I keep outside by our rain barrel. Tucked up like this, the porch’s contents look like a slumbering beast.

It’s hard not to see closing the porch as a household ritual. For all the grunting it entails, a kind of meditation. Little did I know that this year the first snow would follow in less than a week, bending tree limbs beneath its half frozen weight. Now my snow shovel’s by the kitchen door. What’s next is here.

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