Tag Archives: porch

What Man?

“Y’all heard about that man, didn’t you?” Daddy asked when my sisters and I were kids.

“What man?” we responded.

Daddy grinned slightly as he gazed into the distance. He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, slowly lit one as suspense built, then pretended he’d forgotten he asked a question.

What man?” my sisters and I repeated. We grinned and stomped a foot at him.

We were familiar with his exasperating style but we knew a joke was coming. Or was it a joke? With Daddy we were never sure. He told a joke in such a way that after we had a good laugh we still had to ask him whether it was true.

“Is that real, Daddy?” one of us asked after he delivered the punch line.

“I don’t know, that’s what they tell me.” he answered, then walked off to busy himself with Daddy things, leaving us still wondering.

Daddy’s joke and story telling styles were the same – set us up, draw us in, hit us with a good one, then walk away like he’d had nothing to do with the laughter he left behind. Clearly it was genetic because I saw similar styles exhibited by his siblings. All excellent joke and story tellers.

Just like many families gather around the television at night, our families walked across the field to gather on my grandmother’s back porch. Nannie enjoyed the fact that her children had homes next to her farmhouse, and we all enjoyed her back porch filling with aunts, uncles, and cousins. Story telling would soon begin.

My parents, aunts, and uncles would shift chairs around the huge screened porch as they asked Nannie about the garden, wondered out loud as to when we’d dig potatoes, or decided we ought to fix home made ice cream the next weekend. Eventually, they would settle into the random collection of old metal chairs that lined the porch. Amid the sounds of ice tinkling in the tea glasses, metal chairs being scooted into final position, or a cousin’s dog barking to be let onto the porch, one of them would finally say, “Y’all heard about that man, didn’t you?”

The games had begun.

Daddy or an uncle would stretch a story out for a while and the porch would laugh. The first story would trigger a second. The second story would give rise to a third. Then someone would remember a joke. More laughing from the porch.

At times, Mama or an aunt would feign disgust over a story or joke they considered remotely off color. “Thank goodness that’s all you told.” they might say. “I was afraid you were going to tell the one about the horse!”

A clear signal that the one about the horse should now be told.

Once the horse joke began, Mama and the aunts would sigh in disgust, then grin at each other between sips of iced tea.

The stories my family told were always funny, but I remember how much I loved their story telling styles. If Daddy told one, you may as well have a seat. He could stretch a knock-knock joke into a filibuster. One uncle might deliver lightning fast one liners, another might rival Daddy for air time. One aunt could hardly finish a funny story for all the laughing she did as she told it. I loved hearing what was told and couldn’t get enough of how it was told. There were many years of good story telling on that porch.

Earlier this year, both of my kids and I sat on the screened porch at my parents’ house. Daddy, eighty years old now, sat down to join us. As the four of us discussed what my kids had planned for the summer, I remembered my own summer evenings on Nannie’s porch listening to relatives do their story telling.

During a rare pause in Daddy’s conversation with the kids, I asked, “Y’all heard about that man, didn’t you?”

“What man?” they both asked.

“He’ll tell you.” I said, as I nodded towards their grandfather.

Daddy said nothing, but he grinned slightly as he gazed into the distance. He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, slowly lit one as suspense built, then pretended he’d forgotten I’d asked the question.

What man, Big Daddy?” the kids asked him.

Like the pro he was, Daddy slowly launched into one of his best. He stretched it out, paused when necessary, sped up when required, and hit the punch line hard at the end. Both of the kids doubled over with laughter and told him he was “awesome”. I could tell something was on their minds.

“That was funny, but was it true Big Daddy?” they asked him.

He looked at me and grinned from ear to ear. He remembered the old days on Nannie’s porch, just as I had.

Getting no response from him, the kids turned to me.

“Well?” they asked me. “Was that true?”

I grinned at the inquiring looks on their faces. I remembered that feeling when what I’d just heard had been hilarious, but had been told to me in such a way that I really wasn’t sure it was a joke. Daddy’s grin became even wider when I responded to my kids.

“I don’t know, that’s what they tell me.” I said to them. In unison, Daddy and I left the porch, leaving the kids still wondering.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Come in Anyway

This evening I searched for my old photo albums in cardboard boxes under the bed. I found them along with other things I’d saved like pictures my children had drawn for me, random tiny toys I played with as a kid, and in one box I found an old spiral notebook I used to write things in, years and years ago.

It’s not a diary, not even a journal, just notes. For example, on one page I’d recorded how long it took quail eggs to hatch the time I’d gotten them and a tiny incubator from an ad in Southern Living. On another page was a training schedule from when I thought I’d try running a marathon. I laughed when I saw that on my ninth (and final) day of training I had simply written “too hot to run”. On yet another page I had jotted down “Come in anyway – Nannie said” and sketched a little church.

Nannie really was a praying grandmother who wanted us to go to church and who wanted us to know why she wanted us to go to church. She was happy with her relationship with God and she hoped the same for everyone else, especially family. She never preached. Instead she showed by pure example what it meant to be a great Christian. I never pretended to be a great Christian, or even a very good one for that matter, and I thought back to the many impromptu conversations Nannie and I had about God while sitting on her back porch. No one could imagine such deep conversations would pop up after picking a row of tomatoes or pulling a few ears of corn, but they did, and often.

One such conversation began as we shelled butter beans and I started questioning God. Nannie always said we should open our hearts to Him. I said to her that God allows diseases, but I should ask Him to come into my heart anyway? God allows people to drown, burn, and starve, but I should tell Him come in anyway? God allows one person to kill another, but still I should tell Him come in anyway? My examples went on for quite a while but she said nothing, just listened as she continued to shell butter beans. Surely now she realized how I couldn’t ignore all the bad God allows and still say my heart is open, “Come in anyway.” I said nothing else, but I had made my point.

When I was done, Nannie shifted in her chair a little but never looked up as she continued shelling the butter beans in her lap. She said we all do wrong things in life and do them even though we know they’re wrong. We sometimes doubt God or lack faith and we lie and sin in many ways. She said all of us have fallen short and none of us are perfect. Then she said when the time comes for those who believe to enter Heaven, God will stop us and look us in the face, aware of every single one of our past mistakes, errors, and sins, but you know what He will say?

“Come in anyway.”

Nannie threw the last of her butter bean hulls in the old bucket at her feet and stood to go to the kitchen. She said nothing else, but she had made her point.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Hi Ben

During my walk through the cemetery this afternoon I noticed rabbits tucked here and there, watched countless squirrels skitter across gravestones, and heard two blue jays bicker with a crow as it picked something from an old paper bag. Acres in size, this cemetery is full of wildlife from backyard birds to a family of foxes living in a back corner where brush is piled. Once I walk into the cemetery all traffic noises are gone, no sirens blare, and I forget I’m only four miles from downtown D.C. Watching a pair of cardinals in the shrubs by the gate, I sat down at a bench beside one of the gravestones.

I knew from other walks in the cemetery that if I sat on this bench long enough, the family of chipmunks living under the granite base of the tombstone next to it would soon get the nerve to come out. I’m not sure how many live below since there is a constant flow out of the hole, in the hole, back out, two of them now, no wait three, all gone, no here they come again. Once I had four in sight as they scrambled over each other like kittens, paused, then dashed back under the granite, tails in the air. All of these animals today reminded me of the many, many times as a kid that we took in abandoned animals brought to us by well-meaning people.

Our house was always full of animals. Not just the cats and dogs we had, but baby birds, baby rabbits, and even a lizard with three legs someone brought in case we could help it. I currently live in a third floor condo so a pet of any kind is almost out of the question, but something as simple as an afternoon watching rabbits, foxes, and chipmunks can sometimes fill the void.

As a chipmunk bounded from the hole and headed towards a crepe myrtle, a plump robin landed beside me on the back of the bench. I instantly thought of Ben, the name Mama gave to a baby robin someone brought to our house years ago. Mama was usually pretty exasperated by the number of animals I kept, but for some reason she took over caring for Ben the instant he showed up in the bottom of a shoe box. He was just a chunky, fuzzy blob the day he arrived, but in no time Mama had him fat and feathered.

We had a huge screened porch where Mama kept Ben, so he was able to fly as he grew. Ben was satisfied to stay on the screened porch and land on the arms of neighbors who came to visit. People would always ask Mama, “Doesn’t he go to the bathroom on you?”

“Ben would never do that.” Mama always said.

As weeks passed and summer went by, Ben became an adult and began acting interested in other robins in the yard. Mama worried about it, but not wanting to hold him back, she decided she would let him go out to see what he would do.

He flew away.

In an hour he was back. Mama tapped on a can, something she’d done each time she’d fed him, and he flew back to the screened porch. He spent the night there but the next day the pattern repeated: Free to fly in the yard all day, sit on the gutter over the back door which was now favorite spot, then back to the screened porch at night. After a few days of this, Ben no longer returned to the screened porch at night but still spent a lot of time on the gutter over the back door.

“He’s going to sit up there and go to the bathroom on you.” Daddy would say to Mama as he laughed.

“Ben would never do that.” she maintained.

Mama would tap on the can, Ben would fly from the gutter to the porch railing to be fed, then off to the yard somewhere to socialize with his own kind. This new pattern continued for a few more days then we stopped seeing Ben waiting on the gutter. As weeks went by we saw the occasional robin on the gutter, or one in the yard that didn’t seem particularly afraid, but robins never really do. As fall and then winter came the robins disappeared and we wondered if Ben had adjusted well enough to leave with them. We hoped he could survive.

We thought about Ben often during the winter.  As spring came, the more robins that showed up the more we talked about him. One late spring morning I went outside to see a robin on the gutter above the back door. It didn’t fly away. I called Mama who hurried and started talking to the bird. It cocked its head at her but made no effort to move. She stepped inside, grabbed a can from the recycling bin, and came back. As she tapped the can the robin cocked its head again. When Mama tapped a second time, the robin flew down from the gutter to sit on the railing.

“Hi Ben.” Mama said. The robin sat still as she talked. “Hi Ben.” she said again. The robin cocked its head once more and actually hopped along the railing towards Mama. It sat still, staring at her. Then, in a flutter of wings it flew away over the pine trees and was gone. If it was Ben, we never saw him again that we know of. Mama still talks about Ben to this day.

As I sat on that bench in the cemetery remembering Ben and the many, many animals we took care of for short periods of time, I felt a little wistful. There’s a feeling we animal lovers get from having them around, the interaction, the bonding, and the comedy they can provide. There was a feeling of melancholy that came over me remembering Mama’s success with Ben and how I really do think that was him who came back for a visit the next spring.

Feeling full of nostalgia, I turned to the plump robin still sitting on the bench beside me.

“Hi Ben.” I said.

The robin cocked its head at me and just before flying off, it unceremoniously went to the bathroom down the back of the bench.

Ben would never have done that.

Stuart M. Perkins

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A Pew for You

I had dinner over in D.C. tonight and the agreeable weather made it a great night to sit outside. The restaurant’s patio area was delineated from the hectic sidewalk by a rustic cast iron fence topped with weathered planters full of store-fresh geraniums. Behind this barricade, my table and five others were neatly arranged. Six full tables enjoyed dinner and got in some good people-watching. It seemed we all finished our meals around the same time and reluctant to leave such a cozy place on such a pleasant evening, we six full tables of strangers began to talk amongst ourselves as if we were old friends at a reunion.

At one point, the woman at the table beside me told her husband that she wanted to get some things done around the house Saturday, but on Sunday they were going to church. The look on his face proved church had not factored into his plans. His wife knew that look better than I and she cut him off before he could say anything with  “Ohhh yes. We’re going to church. There’s a pew for you this Sunday!” Then she turned to me to say she asks him every Saturday night if he’s going to church with her on Sunday.

I told her that rang a bell. Growing up “across the field” from Nannie, my grandmother, meant I spent many hours as a teenager at her farmhouse working in the garden, helping in the yard, or sitting on her huge two-story screened porch out back. Nannie was more than a Sunday church-goer. She was involved in everything at church regardless of the day of the week. The fact that the church was less that a quarter mile away and visible from the very porch she sat on every evening underscored its relevance in her life. She didn’t miss a Sunday and she gave her best effort to ensure others followed suit. Unfortunately, as a teenager who preferred to do almost anything else on Sunday mornings, I probably often made the same face that the man at the next table tonight gave his wife. Nannie, just like this man’s wife, would ask every Saturday evening that she saw me whether I would be at church the next day.

One of those Saturday evenings I had been helping Nannie with yardwork. We rested on the porch and as I stood up to leave I winced when she asked, with her always sweet and calm tone, “See you at church tomorrow?” I could never lie and say “yes”, but to say “no” made me feel such guilt that I was always trying to come up with unique responses to divert her attention until I could disappear behind the boxwoods by the porch and head home. Somehow, if I could just make it to the boxwoods I felt I’d dodged the bullet. I froze. “See you in church tomorrow?” she sweetly asked again. I remembered a line I’d heard so I looked her squarely in the face, not even using boxwoods as cover, and said “Sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sitting in a garage makes you a car.” She simply said “Maybe not, but cars don’t need to be saved.” When I responded with “All of them I ever drove did.” She started a good Nannie chuckle and before she finished I was behind the boxwoods heading home. I hadn’t gotten far when I heard her say again “See you in church tomorrow.” This time not presented as a question…

The woman at the table beside me seemed to enjoyed my recollection of Nannie’s weekly attempts to get me to church. She turned to her husband and said again, sternly, “We’re going to church.” He leaned up to look around her at me and said “I guess I’ll have to. Know any way I can get out of church Sunday?”

“Plant boxwoods on Saturday.” I suggested.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Doing Corn!

A few years ago I reminisced with coworkers about childhood experiences we longed to relive. One said “Oh, I want to do Italy again! The sights and sounds!” Another said “I want to do Paris again! The shopping!” When asked what summertime fun I wanted to have again I whispered “I want to do corn…!”

Nannie, my grandmother, had a huge garden on her farm which was summer’s focus for my family and my extended family. We anticipated nothing more than CORN. Excitement began when Daddy hooked the planter to the tractor. Weeks later, we pulled suckers in the hot cornfield. “Straighten the stalks up as you go.” Daddy said, wiping his face with a handkerchief. As time passed, Nannie checked corn by pulling shucks back just enough to stick a fingernail into a juice kernel. “If we’d get rain it would go on and make.” Mama predicted. “You could get enough for supper now.” Aunt Noody insisted. Weeks later as the entire field neared “readiness”, Nannie used her skills to decide when timing was right and finally said “Y’all want to do corn Tuesday?”

Tuesday morning aunts started “before it got hot”. Yawning cousins gathered by the barn with lawn chairs, buckets, pans, and knives. In the field, cornstalks jerked and we heard “sca-runch!” each time an ear was pulled. “Lord, it’s snaky in here.” Aunt Helen declared. “Sca-runch!” we heard again. One by one aunts came from the cornfield pushing wheelbarrows filled with corn. They made it to the shade of the giant tree by the barn where chairs had been arranged around bushel baskets to hold the shucks, wiped their sweaty faces, and sat down. Shucking style was important and if we cousins didn’t get all the silks of then “we just as well not shuck”. Wormy ears were passed to aunts who flicked away wriggling offenders and cut damaged kernels away with surgical precision. As each pan filled with shucked corn, one of us cousins ran it up to Nannie’s house to be blanched in huge pots of boiling water.

Nannie hummed hymns as she plopped steaming blanched corn to cool in ice water in the old ceramic kitchen sink while cousins stood at the counter and cut corn off cobs. Aunt Dessie asked “How many pints y’all reckon we’ll get?” as cousins packed corn into freezer cartons. “I still got some from last year so don’t count any out for me.” Aunt Jenny demanded.  We ate mouthfuls of corn as we cut but we didn’t need to because Nannie saved out “pretty” ears for lunch. Cousins ate on the huge porch, leaning forward over plates, butter dripping from chins. After lunch we did more corn until Nannie announced “It’s just too hot.” The steamy kitchen was cleaned, sticky hands washed, and freezer cartons full of corn were divided up. Mama and the aunts stacked the filled freezer cartons onto trays and we all walked home across the field to help put them in our freezers. We had done corn.

My coworkers’ favorite summer memories may be be of Italy and Paris where shopping, sights, and sounds made childhood special, but not mine. A hot summer day with sticky hands, a chin covered with butter, and giggling cousins is what I long for again. I don’t need to go to foreign countries to hear the sounds I want to hear. I want to go home and hear Nannie hum and the “sca-runch!” in the cornfield. I want to do corn…

Stuart M. Perkins

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