Down Life’s Highway

by Roy Dunn

Long ago summer evenings on Grandma’s porch after what little supper we had was eaten, the chores of another day put away, we gathered on Grandma Avelia’s little front porch. She rocked in her favorite rocker holding her rosary. That rocker today is a prized possession of mine. It sets proudly in my bedroom where it’s a constant reminder of those simple days of my childhood.

June was a favorite month for porch sitting, with lightning bugs glowing beautifully and a cool breeze usually blowing. Porch sitting wasn’t only for relaxation; it was almost a necessity. With the lack of electricity, there was no way to cool those little houses that turned into furnaces under the sun-drenched, hot South Louisiana summers. We stayed outdoors until the house cooled down some; it never cooled enough to prevent a lot of sweating.

Mosquito dope in any form was unheard of, so we made our own by starting a fire and loading it down with green limbs, leaves, grass and even pieces of old tires, to make a black, thick smoke that drove the pest away.  We had to make sure the fire was in the right place so as not to drive us away.

The evening Vaiea (va-yeah) was a favorite time for the Cajun, time to reflect on the day’s events. Too poor for anything else, this special time was something we could share. Sometimes neighborhood children and their parents came over for the Vaiea. We young’uns would play our favorite games like hide-n-seek, leap frog, pitching washers or gathering jars of lightning bugs. Exhausted by bedtime, there was always one more chore before turning in; washing your feet was a must. A pan or bucket of water stood at the doorsteps. The big bath came up on Saturday, but you washed up every morning and never failed to wash your feet at night.

I often sat on that little porch and made dreams for tomorrow and thought about far away places. I learned my first song on that porch while playing a homemade guitar built with a cigar box and wire from a screen door, stretched and attached to a handle. I strummed it to the words of Gov. Jimmie Davis’ song, “You Are My Sunshine.” I couldn’t carry a tune then, and in a lifetime still can’t.

About the time I was 10 years old, we really came on hard times. Mom, who took in washing and ironing for the better-off uptown folks, broke a needle in her hand, which got infected. We had no other income, so I took a job at Irby’s Restaurant in town, on the Court House Square. I washed dishes for 50 cents a day on the 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift, then took the long, dark walk home. After a little while, I hired on at Harry’s Midway Restaurant. I washed dishes and peeled potatoes. I’d peel and cut them up into large French Fries that I then put in a bucket filled with cold water. I sat in a little dirt floor shack peeling until the dishes piled up inside. When I’d get caught up with dishes, I’d peel gallons more. My deal, besides a $1 a day, was that I got to keep the peelings. Mom would make soup or thick gravy to put on rice. They inspected the peelings regularly to make sure I wasn’t leaving too much meat on the peelings. I’ve told this story before in another column. I recall one night, as I sat there peeling, tears started down my cheeks. My thoughts were of home and family, gathered on the old front porch. This was one of the few times that I felt sorry for myself. I longed to be there with family and neighbors at the happiest time of the day.

The front porch remained a factor in the American family life until World War II. In the great upheaval of war, customs began to change. Electricity and the radio changed habits also. It was as if that great porch time went off to war and never came back.

Grandma’s porch is still standing. Every once in awhile I go back to Abbeville, stop and look at the house and recall those happy times so many long years ago. The house where I used to sit, run and play, is much the same, but the old folks have gone away. Old Rover no longer roams the lawn. My roots run deep in that old place, next to the railroad track. Sometimes I think I can hear nostalgic sounds of yester-year. I built castles and dreamed dreams there, and I have come full circle and seen many come and go.

I have worked since the earliest day I can remember, but the time had come to slow down. No more 14-hour, seven-day weeks. Now I put in about six hours. Early-morning starts leave plenty of time to enjoy my porch. After Hurricane Rita, we built a special window-lined porch which houses artifacts that have traveled down life’s highway with me or that I picked up along the way.

I feed the coons, birds and other varmints. The Cardinals are plentiful, and a flock of ring-neck doves prance like chickens. Phyl has built a great back yard, which displays sweet smelling antique roses, handed down for generations and a large variety of flowering plants that attract many butterflies and hummingbirds. The Camphor trees also put out their own aroma. Phyl, with the help of son Allen, keeps the place up, and it is pleasant and relaxing.

Along with Roxie, my cat, I spend a lot of time on the porch and court yard. This time around, instead of dreaming of the future, I look back at the road I’ve traveled, gifts the wealthiest can’t buy. Memories are golden roses.

On this, my birthday, deep in life, I treasure the friends I’ve made along the way and the moments of life I spent with them and family. The joy of enjoying this porch seems to go back to a simple life that has come a long way. This time around, however, with all the perks, that’s all the gifts I need. Good health, good family and great friends. I’m truly blessed in the fourth quarter of what has been and is a good life. Regrets, I have few, but I do miss the family and great friends I’ve lost along the way Down Life’s Highway. My joy now is all the grandchildren and great grandchildren Phyl and I have been blessed with.

My partner, my friend, we are coming on 63 years together. I learned as a youngster on the old porch that life is how you face it. We were really poor but we found happiness in each other and I’ve tried to live my life that way. It’s not our possessions that make for a good life, it’s the way one lives it.