Heirlooms by David Mas Masamoto

David Mas Masumoto is an author and a farmer in California’s Central Valley. These posts are excerpted from his book Heirlooms.

Out on the porch

Connecting people to the land

By
June 11, 2008

Dear Nikiko and Korio,

Although you kids only knew of the most recent vintage, our farmhouse had three different porches. The original one faced east, a small landing for a small home. I can imagine someone riding up on a horse, jumping off, and, as the animal grazed on the grasses under a yard tree, neighbors visiting.

In the 1950s, our home was remodeled and the front porch opened to the south. But something happened about that time: air conditioning. People began to hunker down indoors and porches were quickly forgotten. (Soon to follow was the birth of attached garages, and suburbs; houses, yards, and neighborhoods designed to keep others out and homeowners shut in.)

Air conditioning was a status symbol; people with money could stay inside during our valley’s hot summer months while poor folks had to endure the elements. Staying inside implied being clean; outside, you sweated and became dirty. Porches symbolized the old days, a lack of affluence, a relic of the Great Depression. (I read a similar story about the Midwest, the arrival of electricity and Jell-O. City folks were the first to have the benefits of electricity to power such things as refrigerators. That meant the “poor” country folks couldn’t bring Jell-O to the church potlucks.)

You children grew up on our present porch. After coming back to the farm and moving into this house 25 years ago, your mom and I quickly discerned that we needed a real farmhouse porch with a wide veranda and white rails. Now our porch runs along most of the southern exposure. Its redwood planks remain straight and aged; the steps are beginning to show wear and now have character; and the rails have three coats of paint.

Over the years, you kids took over the deck and considered it a huge playpen. We took an obligatory photograph as you walked out onto the porch and left home on the first day of each school year. The porch was big enough to play soccer on, set up tables of food for family reunions, or entertain a gallery of friends as they watched Fourth of July fireworks. Our porch was an extension of our home.

porch swing

On the porch we’ve hosted book parties and family gatherings, setting up a long table where all the guests could sit. Once, with a buddy, we shared a summer evening with fine cigars; something, Korio, you won’t let me forget. It bothered you so see your father smoking on your porch, even if only once a year.

From the porch you kids witnessed the violent June 1995 hailstorm that devastated our peaches. Another time you saw me collapse on the deck from the summer heat and whisper, “This farm is gonna kill me.” From it, we continue to share the annual rite of spring, witnessing the pale green of young vine shoots reaching for the sky, full of promise. Our family’s work is never hidden from view out on the porch.

We share the space with pets, spiders, lizards, and who knows what else lurking beneath the wooden planks. And aren’t all porches supposed to have wicker chairs? The kind that cats claim as their thrones or dogs love to lie next to, both creatures curled in a harmony you wish the entire world shared.

We all slow down on the porch. I rest on a simple wooden bench, just the right height for a short person to sit down and take refuge from farm work. Not a place to hide but to pause; I have to think twice before standing up again. People today seem to take comfort in escaping into their homes. Armed with technology and big-screen TVs, home movie-theater sound systems, and virtual vacations on computers, they disconnect.

From my bench, I have a gentle reminder of the world that awaits me out in the fields. But perhaps not just right now. I savor the moment with a cool drink in the late spring or summer, finding the right excuse to rest: “I have plenty of work time, it doesn’t get dark until late.”

From this vantage point, I can scan the farm and survey the world. In the evening I can hear baby barn owls screeching for food and the sound of the adults taking flight: whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. I look up and see the ghosts of their faces in the moonlight. I watch the fog slip by on a cold winter day and feel as if we’re on a ship cutting through the moisture, moving through time. During harvest, I can see our orchards and vineyards, hear water splashing out of irrigation valves, and imagine the trees getting a cool drink as the heat ripens fruit. The farm is never far from us, and our porch gives me a sense of place.

On the porch we’re half inside and half outside, away from the daily physical struggle of farm work but not yet distracted by phone calls or e-mails. It’s a place of transition between public and private spaces, preparing to venture out into the world or taking shelter in our home.

Children, you don’t know this, but my favorite times of the day are either the early morning when the world is just awakening, or the middle of the night when I imagine everyone except me is asleep. I’ll stand out on the porch and lean against the rail. It takes a minute before the quiet is heard and all seems well. Then I’m renewed for the day.

Our porch is where you kids can watch me grow old. I’ll age with the wood, wear down like the footpath marking our daily trail from the steps to the front door. I, too, will have scars and wear the weathered signs of the seasons. Tales were told and retold out on our porch, growing with generations. Old folks need a place where their stories can be shared, a place with memories and stories we leave behind.

I think we should have a Central Valley porch day: tell stories as we all take to our porches, wave to each other like a scene from the past, and celebrate who we are. We’re more porch people here than big-city folk, and our architecture needs to mirror us.

Kids, take our porch with you, wherever you go, to the places you will grow to call home.

Love,

Dad

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