Saturday, March 6th, 2021

O Shopper Columns


As a child, the thought of going to heaven terrified me. I enjoyed Sunday School, loved Bible stories, said my prayers, and didn't worry about dying. But heaven as described to me by others seemed more like a punishment than a reward. "We'll leave this vale of tears and join the heavenly choirs in songs of endless praise," I was taught. Well, I rather liked this so-called "vale," as tear-stained as it may be. For all the tears shed here, there seemed to be an equal measure of laughter and joy. Besides, after an hour of heavenly praise singing, I knew that I'd be itching to go anywhere else- even if the only alternative was someplace considerably warmer.

Keep the angel choirs, pearly gates, and even the streets of gold. My idea of heaven is sitting on the front porch with family and friends as the heat of the day evaporates and the cool of the evening shades set in.

For those who, due to age or circumstance, are unacquainted with front porches, they were once the norm. Shaded with awnings and large enough to accommodate several rocking chairs and a "porch swing," they offered a front-row view of life on the street where one lived. Porch sitting was a communal experience: neighbors couldn't help but see- and usually hear- one another.

I personally experienced front porches at my grandparent's house in the Portsmouth neighborhood of Prentis Park during the 1960s. Most houses there were modest, built by shipyard workers; but doctors, lawyers and other professionals lived there, too- usually in larger homes. What all houses had in common were front porches. After supper in the evenings, everyone migrated to their front porch to relax and "wind down" from the events of the day. 

Keep the angel choirs, pearly gates,
and even the streets of gold.
My idea of heaven is sitting on the front porch
with family and friends

Houses were closer together then, so by slightly raising one's voice, one could comfortably converse with the next-door neighbors as they relaxed on their porch. Kids played in the front yards, ran up and down the street, and chased lightning bugs under the watchful eyes of parents and neighbors.

Some adults might "stretch their legs"- leaving the porch to stroll down the sidewalk. Front yards being so small, they could talk with their porch-sitting neighbors without ever leaving the pavement. Being in such close physical proximity to everyone else was a fact of life- one that was accepted as somehow inherently virtuous; something for which to be grateful.

There were annoyances, of course. Couples quarreling knew to keep their voices down so the neighbors wouldn't hear. Teens sneaking home after their curfew were as likely to be seen by neighbors as by parents.  One had to contend with snoops and gossips- the forerunners to internet trolls, the big difference being one had to deal with them face to face, in the flesh. One couldn't delete a neighbor. "Unfriending" someone would have been problematic since come the evening, they would be in full view on their front porch. "Unfriending" someone would have been seen as a character weakness- even if one's anger was justified. Better to make peace with an estranged neighbor.

For me, sitting on the front porch symbolizes making peace. I'm sure there were evenings when my grandparents were angry with each other; but after settling into their front porch rockers, forcing themselves to make small talk, and spending the evening exchanging pleasantries with neighbors, both probably found it easier to forgive a host of sins- actual and imaginary.

In my imagination, I relive an evening on their front porch. The low murmur of neighbors' conversations up and down the street is the music to which the fireflies dance. I look through the tunnel of front porches on either side of the house, seeing the red flicker of cigars and pipes under the awnings. I watch as the silhouettes of neighbors slowly become one with the deepening night. The darkness doesn't bother me; there's life in it. Sitting in the porch swing between my mom and dad, with Grandma, Grandpop and my young aunt so near, I feel connected to others.  Life on the front porch is good- dare I say, heavenly.

We need more heaven in our world.

Rob Lauer is an award-winning, nationally-produced and published playwright with over 35 years of experience in the entertainment industry. His national credits include production work for MGA Films, Time/Warner TV, The Learning Channel and The History Channel. Locally, Rob has been producing, directing and hosting three TV series for PCTV (the City of Portsmouth’s official channel) since 2011.