Tina McElroy Ansa’s Thoughts of Home: The view from out front

From the porch, I watched the world while still safe at home
Illustration by Clare Mallison
Illustration by Clare Mallison

When I was young, my family moved across and around Macon, Georgia, into houses grand and simple, on dirt roads and paved streets. My father, who owned juke joints, clubs, and liquor stores, led an adventurous business life that left our lifestyle and family situation in flux.

We didn’t move much, just enough for me to know the ache of remembrance and the longing for a place, a spot—not a person—that I took for granted would be mine forever. I realize now that with each move, I didn’t miss only the house and the neighborhood. Like any good Southerner, I missed the porch.

I know it is cliche, the wide Southern porch where one is always being served or serving a cool drink on a hot summer day. Well, cliche be damned! For a girl who liked to daydream and read more than she enjoyed running around outside, porches were essential: You were getting “fresh air” while still coordinating your own day; you were watching the world while still safe at home.

Each porch left me changed—stamped its mark of joy or discovery or acceptance on me—then moved me along to the next one.

The first porch I can conjure up comes with the smell of Georgia clay and my grandfather’s bittersweet tobacco smoke. I’m told Frank McElroy—“Big Daddy” to me, his last of seven grandchildren—would sit erect in his wooden cane-back rocker with me planted on the side of his lap, just rocking, smoking, peeling apples with his pocket knife, watching the day go by. Along the unpaved street out the middle screen door and down four concrete steps, cars rattled by, raising a cloud of red dust that enveloped us in earthy-scented delights.

We moved.

My second porch—long, sleek, partially enclosed—was a place of big family meals and spontaneous celebrations by a lake, where long, shellacked picnic tables were often filled with laughing adults and giggling youngsters. It was there I spied my first adult crying, and I cried right along.

My third porch, speaking of Southern classics, was large and screened, attached to the living and music rooms of our three-story brick residence. It was perfect. I could read undisturbed for hours curled up on the green cushions my mother sewed for the white wicker furniture. It was there I learned of loss and redemption. We were evicted from that beauty. Yet in a year’s time, in what must have been a Middle Georgia black man’s miracle, my father bought the house and the porch back for the family.

After each move, each loss, each acquisition, I gained some new awareness; my viewpoint from my own porch rocker changed, deepened. In recent decades, those views have expanded to take in the ocean and marsh, as my husband, Joneé, and I have lived on St. Simons Island.

Still, it is that first front porch that leaves the crucial mark on me and my spirit. The security of my Big Daddy’s lap, the stubble of his graying five o’clock shadow against my fingers, resonates more than half a century later.

Family and friends say to me, “Tina, there’s no way you recall that porch. You weren’t much more than a toddler then.”

Perhaps, I say. Yet I must ask: Why is it that, no matter what porch I’m sitting on, I always feel loved and protected whenever the aroma of dry Georgia clay suddenly rises and envelops me?

The author of five novels, Ansa is also the founder of DownSouth Press and Sea Island Writers Retreats. She and her filmmaker husband, Joneé, have lived on St. Simons Island for 30 years.