One of our adventures this summer took us to the Chautauqua Institute, a gated community on a scenic lake in upstate New York. One evening, as the boys rode their bikes around the guest house where we were staying, we were greeted by two couples sitting on the front porch of the house next door.
“We’ve really been enjoying watching your boys all week,” said one of the women. “They’re so cute, and so lively!”
“Thank you - they are certainly very active!” I said, as Jonah careened down the wide grass lawn that sloped down from the historic hotel where we ate our meals.
“Is this your first time at Chautauqua?” asked the other woman.
“Well, it’s my and the boys’ first time, but my husband George spoke here two years ago, and he’s speaking again on Friday.”
“How wonderful! What is he speaking on?”
We launched into a conversation about George’s talk, where we were from, and our respective professions, and discovered that one of the men was a retired pediatrician.
“Oh, that’s great! We have a special relationship with our pediatrician,” I said. “With three boys, we see him all the time!”
They laughed, then asked, “What do you think of Chautauqua so far?”
“We love it! We are having such a great time! I love that it’s so safe, everyone is so friendly - my oldest son has been riding his bike home from the Boy's and Girl’s Club by himself, which is a big deal for him. And I love that the boys can ride their bikes around and we don’t have to worry about them.”
Just then, we heard wailing from afar - a voice we recognized as Carter, our three-year-old.
George went trotting down the hill to check out the scene, and I excused myself and followed him as the crying escalated. As I turned the corner of our guest house, I came upon a jumble of bikes and boys. Carter was lying on the ground wailing, Mason was picking himself up from the ground, and both of their bikes were splayed on the asphalt.
“Mason ran into Carter on his bike,” announced Jonah as I approached.
“Carter ran right in front of me and I tried to stop but my bike didn’t stop fast enough!” shouted Mason, a scowl on his face. “I’m so angry at him!”
“It was an accident, buddy,” said George. “Are you okay?”
“Yes!” he said.
Carter continued to cry, and I took him into my arms and felt all over for any broken bones. He seemed to be fine, other than a bruise beneath his left eye that was already swelling, from a collision with the bike or with some part of Mason, who is solidly built.
As I carried him up to the guest house, the retired pediatrician was walking down the hill. “Everything all right?” he asked as he approached.
“Yeah, we just had a little collision between pedestrian and biker. He’s got a little bruise under his eye, but other than that, I think he’s fine.”
He tilted Carter’s chin up gently and looked at the bruise. “Looks like he’ll be fine,” he said.
“Thanks so much for coming to check on us,” I said. “I’m going to go get some ice for him.”
“Glad everything’s okay,” he said, and loped back up to the house.
The next morning, as we shepherded the boys to the bus stop for camp pick-up, the pediatrician was out on the front porch again, drinking coffee. “How’s your little guy doing?” he called out.
“He’s great,” I said. “Thanks again for checking in on him!”
One of the things I loved most about our week at Chautauqua was the "front porch culture" we experienced, a mindset in which someone that we had just met would come down and check to make sure that our injured son was all right, simply because we had stopped to chat on the porch. All around us that week, people drank their coffee, read their newspapers, dined, socialized, napped, and listened to open air concerts on their front porches. They watched friends go by, strangers go by, and waved to both from their front porches.
This mindset reminds me of times gone by, when the streets were safe, and children could be sent outside to play in the neighborhood without constant supervision.
I long for this kind of community, for friends who live around the corner who can watch my children when I need to take one of them to the doctor unexpectedly, who I can borrow spices from when I don’t want to run to the store, who will drop off extra vegetables from their garden, who will stop and help one of the boys fix the chain on his bicycle if it falls off as he’s riding by. I have a few friends like this, but none are in walking distance, and we don't tend to see each other without planning ahead.
Our house has a lovely front porch with white railings, but it looks out onto a busy four-lane road, and the traffic noise does not allow for lingering or spontaneous chats with neighbors. In fact, we only met people from our neighborhood when we gathered in the aftermath of an accident on our street.
A drunk driver crashed into a car parked two doors up from us, and one of her wheels catapulted into our neighbor’s garage door when her front axle broke. Despite the collision and the fact that she was missing a wheel, the driver lurched ahead in her battered car, and the screeching of splintered metal against asphalt brought us all scurrying out from our homes. Fortunately, no one was hurt, and for a few minutes, those of us in the surrounding houses were bonded together by the crisis, but then we went our separate ways and didn’t see each other for another few years.
I have also found that parenting has been an isolating pasttime, particularly after my second and third children were born. For one thing, I am completely exhausted by nap time, as caring for multiple strong-willed, intense boys takes a lot out of me. And, as an almost-introvert, when the weekend finally rolls around, I often don’t have the social energy to expend on hosting and planning gatherings with people.
Our children also attend schools that draw families from all over the Bay Area, and as a result, socializing with them is inconvenient and requires much advance planning. Driving my oldest son to a play date in San Francisco is a far cry from running next door to deliver freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.
To top it off, varying nap schedules, school, constant illness in the winter, extracurricular activities, and travel in the summer have also made it difficult for us to spend time with other families.
I know there are small pockets of "front porch" communities that exist. One of my dearest friends from college lives in Sherwood, Oregon, and she and her neighbors trade off kids, bring each other meals when someone is in crisis, host Friday night pizza parties, exercise together, get together on Saturday mornings for coffee, and hang out in the evenings with baby monitors that they hope are within range of their homes.
When we have stayed with them during our visits to Oregon, I am secretly envious of their strong community bonds, and am definitely tempted when she sends me “House For Sale” flyers from her street as a not-so-subtle hint that we should move there.
Short of moving to Sherwood, Oregon, or even to a more family-friendly neighborhood in our area, I am trying to figure out how to simulate a front porch culture in our current circumstances. Now that we are coming up for air after seven years of intense baby and toddler parenting, this seems more attainable than it has in the past.
My first endeavor is to congregate a group of women, perhaps once a quarter, who I enjoy talking to but don’t see very often. I’m going to call them “Front Porch Gatherings,” and will try to make them low key get-togethers - meeting at a coffee shop, going for a walk, seeing a chick flick, grabbing dinner, attending a jewelry party.
The goal is simply to connect with other moms, without our children around, and see what happens from there. At the very least, we will get some time off from the demands of mothering. At the most, I’m hopeful that something more will transpire, something akin to the front porch culture that I long for, and that I suspect other moms wish for as well.