The Front Porch

She called me a romantic. Not like Don Juan with all the girls swooning. Or the most interesting man in the world. I don’t drink dos Equis, but I do stay thirsty.

There is a difference between being romantic, all hearts and flowers and such, and being a romantic.

I’m pretty sure that there have always been people who could be termed romantics in the second sense. They just didn’t have a name for them until the end of the 18th century when the Romantic Movement began. This was when a lot of artists and writers and philosophers were breaking away into a post Enlightenment movement. Folks like Goya, Verdi, Keats and Shelley.

What was happening was that these creative people were expressing themselves via their hearts. Emotion and feeling. Moving away from the rules of the day. Expression through the mind and a literal representation of things and ideas.

For years my mother had a painting hanging in the kitchen. A bright watercolor of a very inviting front porch. Wide space with plenty of shade and big comfy furniture. Down south we’d say it was a great porch for visiting and sippin’ sweet tea. Not my parents front porch, but not too different.

For my parents fiftieth anniversary we children gave them a painting of their farm home. Big old stone house. Big front porch. Very welcoming. The painting is firmly rooted in realism and depicts every detail in perfect absolutism.

I like the make believe porch picture better. Don’t get me wrong. I love my parent’s house. Including the porch. But it’s the other painting, the one that gives me a hint and let’s my mind run free with my ideas about the porch that I love so much.

Thinking with my heart and not my mind. The painting is just one example. I guess she was right about being a romantic.

That’s part of my story. What’s yours? Www.personalhistorywriter.comImage

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White Knuckles!

Here in the South they say never plant before Easter, meaning that at any time until then it’s possible to get a killing frost or snow. Now that it’s Easter I feel comfortable enough to talk about snow without fear that Mother Nature will throw some at me!

We drove home from Pennsylvania, through the Appalachians. My wife said she wanted to see the mountains covered in snow but for the roadways to be clear and the driving to be safe. This morning we awoke to find an inch of snow on the ground, and the white stuff still falling. Now it’s a light snow. There are some schools closed, and some schools opening late. The staff at the front desk says the roads are clear. And safe, albeit a slow go.

But up ahead stands the big mountain. The one with the runaway truck ramps. The one that’s even scary when the weather is good. That’s where the main storm is headed and we have to go over it. Or we can go west, away from the storm, toward Asheville. I think we might go to Asheville.

Years ago we made a similar trip home through the snow. Much worse, and further south. It started in Raleigh and continued all through the Carolinas to the Georgia border. White knuckle all the way. Making way at fifteen miles an hour on the interstate I figured if I could just keep going I’d be ok. Stop and you’re stuck in the snow. Slow and steady. That was my tactic.

Not everyone felt the same way. Some of the drivers must have thought that the faster they went, the sooner they’d be out of the storm. I saw all sorts of cars and trucks slipping and sliding. Off the road in a ditch. Even flipped over off the road. By the time we got out if it, the antenna on the van was more than an inch in diameter. Solid ice

In the end we opted for the big mountain route. The Asheville route would keep us on back roads in the mountains all the way home.

Between the snow and fog we entirely missed out on the spectacular views from the top. But within a few miles we were out of the snow, looking instead at green grass and budding trees.

That’s part of my story. What’s yours? www.personalhistorywriter.comImage

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Peaceful Dining

Restaurants that are loud are no fun for me. I’m half deaf from too much loud noise in my life so I can’t hear conversations very well anyway, but when it’s loud, and I have to holler to be heard, it’s just no fun. I guess I’m looking for too much.

A favorite restaurant of mine is an Italian place in New York. We found it a number of years ago when we went for an extended weekend. We were staying in a hotel a block or so from Central Park South, east of the park. A block or two down the road we walked into this place with an Italian name. I don’t remover what it was.

The inside was very elegant. Dimly lit. Lots of candles, carpets, crystal chandeliers and goblets. The kind of place where dinner for two costs a couple hundred bucks.

The maître d had on a white suit. Black hair, slicked back. And pointy shoes. Shiny. And we were the only ones in the place. Very quiet. Very. Except for Pavoratti singing in the background.

My dream come true. Since we were the only ones there we got a lot of attention. I couldn’t decide if this was a mob front or a legit place, but it was nice. As were the people.

My youngest daughter wasn’t feeling well that night and couldn’t decide if she wanted to eat anything. The waiter mistook this hesitancy for not being able to find anything she wanted on the menu. A few moments later the chef came out and said that if she couldn’t find anything she liked on the menu he would be happy to make her anything at all. Menu or not. And the maître d came over and said that if she couldn’t decide on something his feelings would be hurt.

We explained the situation and my daughter and wife actually went back to the hotel. I was so happy there that I ate enough for all three of us.

On my recent trip returning from Pennsylvania we were in Lexington, Virginia at dinnertime. Lexington is the home of both the Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University. Yes, George and Robert E.. You’d think there would be some nice restaurants and in fact there is a thriving, hip downtown.

Somehow we ended up a little outside the downtown area headed back toward the interstate. Without having eaten. Out of the corner of my eye, atop the hill I saw a restaurant. Well, an eating place anyway. The Redwood Diner. In the parking lot there was one car. My wife believes that if the parking lot is empty the food must not be good. We were there, and we went in. We were all alone. Not even anyone working there!

The waitress appeared and told us to sit anywhere. While we were there no one else came in. Very quiet. Good food. Friendly people. Just no customers. I loved the quiet. My second favorite place. Other than my mother’s kitchen.

That’s part of my story. What’s yours?

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The Farmer’s Market

Was the tomato homegrown was the simple question I asked. The response was a snide “do you think I grew it indoors?” Admittedly, it’s mid April, and the high temperature today is 60 degrees. Not exactly outdoor garden season yet. But it led to further discussion about how the owner of the tomato liked her okra fresh, and not frozen.

Another silly question. Had she visited the farmer’s market to look for fresh okra? Same time of year, same weather, but yes, the farmer’s market is open. There are actually several near here, and I see them on Saturday morning. Maybe they grow stuff indoors.

Around here, as I suspect is true in other locales, farmer’s markets generally are stocked by micro farm operators who are heavily into organic growing methods. Farms operated by John Deere normally have larger outlets for their produce. But I remember a different kind of farmer’s market from my youth.

I grew up in a subdivision home. But behind my home was a 100-acre piece of farmland where the fields were always planted in feed corn. Around Halloween the tractors would be out late at night, running with the their lights on harvesting the annual crop. During the winter there would be stubby stalks left over. Come spring, the field would be plowed anew and replanted. And all of the growing season we would run through the fields, up and down the long rows between the tall stalks.

I don’t know what happened to this corn when it was harvested, but on any given weekend we could ride in to town to visit the farmers market. Big, long brick building dating from 1911. The Fairgrounds Farmer’s market. It had a concrete floor and was filled with farmers selling their wares. Fresh fruit and vegetables. Baked goods. Meats and poultry. A little of everything. There were some places, like the Country Store, that had permanent shops. I remember that place because there was a large old wooden barrel in the store. When you took the lid off you found that it was about half full of soda crackers. And a cat!

During the summer this was the only place to buy a watermelon. Sure, other places sold them, but it was sacrilege to get one anywhere else. Fresh off the farm! All of this stuff was. You could see the dirt on the vegetables. And the farmer’s hands. Everything smelled fresh. Rich smells. Earthy. And the farmers all spoke like Pennsylvania Dutchmen. Because they were.

That’s different from Amish. But here’s a quick and chuckle inducing story about Amish farmers. I ran the Philadelphia Marathon several years ago and after the race we went to the big farmers market in the city. The Reading Terminal Market. I saw some Amish girls selling vegetables, and talking on their cell phones! Modern stuff like that is allowed for business purposes I guess.

The farmer’s market from my youth still operates on the weekend but it’s been years and years and years since I’ve been there. The local farmers market has good produce, and baked goods and soaps and such, but it just isn’t the same as what I remember from my youth. Nothing ever is.

That’s part of my story. What’s yours?

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Caretakers of the Tree

The place was named Shadow Lawn Farm. At one time an expansive place with livestock including cows, pigs, chickens and horses. There was a two story bank barn in days of yore. The second story disappeared somewhere along the line and it became a one story barn with horse stalls and a place for tractors. And a garage. Then there was the house. A two story place made of stone dug out of the fields as the farmers worked the land.

No telling what the first place looked like, logs and mud maybe, but the original stone house was a two over two built in 1863. Over the years it was expanded, still using the stone as a building material. And then expanded more using wood. Porches were added, and covered up, until it looked like a stone center with wings spreading out in every direction. All based on the two foot thick stone walls of the original.

And from the beginning, out in the front yard, grew the little tree. But now, after all these years, I couldn’t possibly get my arms around its trunk. In fact, I believe that my full six foot arm span wouldn’t cover its diameter! With its numerous branches, from the ground up, and its sixty foot wide canopy, it casts one hell of a shadow across the lawn. Get it? Shadow Lawn Farm.

It’s not just any old tree though. I’m pretty sure someone long ago planted this beauty. Not an oak or maple or even hickory or elm. This is a copper beech. And a magnificent specimen it is! The largest in the county! I’ve only ever seen one larger. That one is so big that where its lowest branches have dipped to touch the ground, new trees have sprung up, themselves now with branches nearing the ground. That tree is protected from any onslaught by being located on a college campus. Carefully tended.

My tree grows in the yard. It touches the house. And reaches its branches out over the road in front. Keep in mind that the house sits over a hundred feet from the road. But running along the side of the road is the electric company power line. Quite a danger for a tree. No, the tree won’t get electrocuted. But the power company doesn’t like trees. The branches give squirrels a way to get to transformers to commit suicide. And black out the neighborhood. And the branches can fall off the trees and snap the power lines. Especially when everything’s weighed down with ice in the winter. So every once on a while the power company comes along with a whirring buzz saw and mangles anything near its power lines.

Except the copper beach. For nearly forty years my parents have stood guard over that tree. Recognizing its beauty. Grandeur. And significance. You can hear the power company coming for miles. And every time, my mother or my father would wait at the edge of their property to meet the power people. They would tell them about the tree. About its beauty. And significance. And every time, the power company people would get out a pair of pruning shears and gently take out a twig or two. Just enough for the power cable to run through the middle of the tree unobstructed.

If I remember correctly, in the winter the bare branches form a crazy maze of avenues. Spring brings leaves of purple. In the summer they turn green. And in the fall, oh, in the fall they turn that magnificent copper color and shimmer in the sunlight. Spectacular to see. And each year it grows a little taller, and wider, and closer o the ground.

My parents are moving this spring, before the leaves emerge. I don’t know if new owners of the homestead will know about the shadow lawn farm. But they will see the tree. The question is, will they intercept the power company buzz saw to preserve the tree? And its beauty.

That’s part of my story. What’s yours?


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The End of the Book King

For as long as I can remember, and I have a pretty long span, he has been known as the book king. He even signs his name that way on Christmas cards. In any antiques store he could always be found among the books. Turn him loose in a bookstore and he’s good for hours. Like a lot of people he goes to book sales at the library. In fact though, he has graduated from just going to the sale to a position where he provides consultation regarding book values, and works the sale as a volunteer. He’s known as the king because he’s a collector, and he’s got a lot of books.

He specializes in maritime, military and poetry. But that doesn’t limit, or define his collection. There is history, biography, science and mathematics. More recently he’s collected a lot of books on medicine as he reads to understand his own medical status. He doesn’t do romance novels or cookbooks, but everything else has found its way into his collection.

No one ever knew how many books he had. Too hard to count. What we knew was that in every room of the house there were shelves and shelves filled with books. They were stacked on the floor. Stacked on stacks. On the furniture. In the bathroom. They were everywhere, and not in small numbers. We just knew he was the king, and had a lot of books.

In the last couple of months he’s been getting a handle on the books. He and my mother are moving. And there is no room for all of the books. He poured over them again and again trying to figure out which ones he could part with. I don’t know what his criteria are for keeping or setting free. I doubt that he’s looked at all of them, but he’s made a good effort at it. He’s got a lot of other things going on with this move.

Three book dealers came to the house. One at a time. The first one bought something like four hundred books. The second dealer took seven hundred. I think the last guy left with something like nine hundred. Then there was the big giveaway. The AAUW, Association of American University Women, were the lucky recipients of over a thousand books. Just come pick ‘em up and they’re yours. I went through the whole collection before the dealers, and I took a couple for myself. As did my brother. And sister.

Don’t get the wrong idea. He hasn’t been cleaned out. No telling how many books he’s kept for himself. I know I saw him moving more bookshelves into his new apartment. He’s planning to start gathering more books soon. But it took a lifetime to gather the original collection, and now he’s only got what’s left of a lifetime to rebuild. And I haven’t even mentioned all the books my mother has! Off to a grand new start. Long live the King! And Queen.

That’s part of my story. What’s yours?

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Unexpected History Lesson

The back roads on a Sunday afternoon might offer a better chance of an antique store than the four lane.  That was my thinking anyway.  So we set out on what became a real journey through time.

On Friday we’d driven the highways down to Statesboro.  My daughter goes to school there and we were off to visit for the weekend.  Family weekend, all of us together.  Not much to see on this route.  Fields, forests, truck stops.  The road takes you around all of the towns, or what’s left of them. 

The weekend was great, visiting, with each other, and visiting the town.  But then it was time to go home.  Rather than return the same way, I thought we’d try another route.  Back roads.  Small towns.

We found small towns.  A cluster of houses centered on, well, I don’t know what.  Each other I guess.  With folks sitting on the porch just waving at the car as we passed by.  And some of the back roads turned into dirt roads.  This far south it’s not really dirt, but more of a sandy mixture.  The car’s tires turned white after rolling though it.

Along the way the conversation turned to the old relatives and we decided that my wife had family buried in a church cemetery somewhere near where we were.  The hunt was on for Mount Moriah.

The GPS we were using had a dirt road as a major landmark.  We got lost.  A young man standing in his front yard seemed likely to know where we were headed.  We pulled into the driveway to ask.  No he didn’t know, but if we rode down the road a bit, way out in the country he said, the lady at the store would know.  I could only wonder where he thought he was living if down the road, away from his home in what seemed to me like the middle of nowhere, was the country.  Off the dirt road?  After asking two more local people where the place was, with none of them knowing, we tried another dirt road.  Never did see the store with the knowing lady.

We did find another store.   The one that my mother in law remembered.  An old wooden structure, long since abandoned and now dilapidated, that had been her grandfather’s place of business.  It was he and his wife who were buried at the church, not more than a quarter mile distant.

We pulled into the church cemetery and started wandering and looking.  There they were.  Two tombstones, grandmother and grandfather.  My daughter’s great-greats.  Another car pulled up to the church and after a few minutes a woman came out of the church and across the street to ask us if we were looking for something in particular.

My mother in law explained what we were doing and the woman’s eyes lit up and she said “let me go get Joe, you’re kin to him!”  Joe turned out to be my mother in law’s cousin’s nephew.  We were family and just like that, we were taken in and treated like we’d known each other all our lives.

Rachel, Joe’s wife, was so nice to us.  She wanted to show us all around the church and show us pictures of all the old relatives.  The family was big in the church.  There was a stained glass window dedicated to my wife’s great grandparents.  There was a spot on the wall in the sanctuary where someone had unloaded a double barrel full of birdshot in the middle of the night.  We heard the story of how the church was built in 1867, and remodeled in 2009.  We saw the old outdoor baptismal font, across the street and in the woods.  She told us the story of how the road had been moved to get it away from the church’s front door. And how the last thing her father in law had made sure of was that the road in front of the church got paved.

There was a map of the cemetery plots.  And we heard about how this aunt and that cousin were buried down the road in another church cemetery.

I’m sure they would have invited us to stay for dinner, or even to spend the night, but they were starting their youth group bible class and we were now of a need to hit the road. Heading toward the car we all hugged each other, even us in-laws.  And of course they told us to come back, and we told them to come visit.  A southern nicety.

I’d hoped for an antique shop.  An old cemetery is always an interesting adventure.  But meeting these people, relatives, and experiencing their hospitality, that was all way beyond expectation.  And the best part of the day.

That’s part of my story.  What’s yours?

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