July Alter front porchI bought my house because I love its front porch—it stretches across the front of the 1922 red-brick bungalow, with about two-thirds of it roofed.  There are hanging baskets of ferns and Wandering Jew, pots of sweet potatoes vines, basil, sage, plumbago, oregano, and chives, and planters full of thyme, dill, tansy (I’ll never plant dill again because the caterpillars decimated it, and this year a grasshopper ate a lot of oregano but the hardy plant recovered). When I’m cooking, I can go out and snip oregano, thyme, chives—whatever’s needed for what I’m cooking. For the best of food, herbs, like everything else, need to be fresh. I can tell the difference in the dishes I prepare.

Judy Alter, authorOne fall morning this year, I sat out there while my four-year-old grandson ran around, and we had a nature lesson. He tasted various herbs, said he liked most of them but didn’t swallow them. I think he liked the chives best. The he watched birds and squirrels, and I set him to looking for the geckos that live on the red brick. He also likes to find spiders and for a while had one spider whose web he watched every time he came to visit. Alas, it went the way of spiders and their webs. I’ve taught him that geckos and spiders are our friends but somehow I haven’t gotten the lesson across with roly-polys. He carries them, studies them, watches them crawl on his hand, and then stomps on them, saying to me, “That was a bad roly-poly.”

I can sit out on the porch on a spring or summer evening and watch people go by, walking their dogs or just themselves. They wave, and some stop to chat. I’ve gotten to know my neighbors that way. Sometimes someone will see me sitting out there and come to visit, maybe bringing a glass of wine or a beer or just a glass of water. Sometimes, when the weather and the light are right, I teach writing classes on the porch—best done in the spring. Lovely as the fall is, we lose the light too early.

Mine is an old neighborhood, blessed with huge trees that arch over the street—I always fear for the elm in front of my house. It’s a wonderful anchor to the street, but I know it’s old and for a while it lost limbs with frightening regularity. It seems pretty solid now. But when I sit there, looking out at the trees along the street, I sort of feel like I’m in a bower of green. I love living in an older house, in spite of the maintenance problems—large rooms, high ceilings, and most of all, the front porch.

Front porches are a throwback to the days when the house was built when they were a tradition, a sign of sociability. Sitting on your front porch meant you were open and friendly to your neighbors. Somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, the trend became ranch houses with fenced back yards, patios, and swimming pools. Families were locked into their own little worlds and often didn’t visit with their neighbors. Front porches were reduced to what our grandparents would have called stoops—small square of brick or concrete or decorative tile. Sometimes they’re invitingly decorated with door wreaths, pots of something green or blooming, but there’s no room for chairs, no visible space that says, “Come on, neighbor, come and visit.”

Sue-Ellen Likes to Dance by Judy Alter

Cooking My Way Through Life by Judy Alter

I do read on the porch, but I never write out there. That’s a desk activity. I’m the author of numerous books about the American West, fiction and nonfiction, written for both young adults and adults. My two most recent books are Sue Ellen Learns to Dance and Other Stories, a collection of fifteen stories about women in the West. The stories are sad and funny, historical and contemporary, urban and rural. One makes me cry every time I have to read it to an audience. But a book that brought me great joy is Cooking My Way Through Life with Kids and Books. It’s a memoir cookbook of my life as a parent, author, and  publisher. It breaks my life into four cooking phases: my Chicago childhood, my marriage and move to Texas, my years as the single parent of four, and my current years of living alone, cooking and entertaining frequently. A lot of recipes, all easy to follow. Follow me on Judy’s Stew—a blend of writing, cooking, and grandmothering (http://www.judys-stew.blogspot.com).