I can still hear the soft pop and then the hollow hiss of the streetlamp coming on in front of my grandmother’s house. The big folks’d be sitting on the front porch swing talking softly, and we kids would be playing in the grass nearby. It was always a Sunday evening and it was warm, and the fireflies (we called them lightning bugs) would be out. Occasionally a car would pass by the house—they said it was a busy street, back in those days—its tires swishing on the pavement.
My grandmother’s lawn was always cut short and neat, and the edges along the walks were trimmed. A big bush in front was always perfectly oval, with no branches protruding past the smooth outline. The front porch opened to the side, and the steps ran the full width of the porch. They were where we would sit and talk when we got tired of playing in the grass. By the time the streetlamp came on, my grandfather would have raised the big awning over the steps, which faced the setting sun. In the afternoon, the lowered awning gave the porch a dark, private feeling.
I wasn’t always comfortable at Grandmother’s. She ran a tight ship, as they say, and kids had to watch their step. It was a predictable place, though; it felt solid somehow. I didn’t know back in those days of any dissention in the family. Grandmother was the boss, no question. She was a large woman, who usually sat in a straight chair. My grandfather was small and quiet and active. He had a workbench in the basement that he let me work at. The smell of his pipe got me to try smoking as soon as I could do it safely. That sweet tobacco smell blended with the rich odors of cooking food whenever we were at their house. If someone could capture and bottle that smell, they could make a million dollars. But out on the front porch about dusk, there was a quiet, safe feeling about the place. I usually behaved myself, as my mom would say.
Most streetlamps in Cincinnati those days were electric, but a few neighborhoods still had gas lamps. I think the residents had to pay extra to keep them. Since that particular lamp was only about twenty feet in front of the house, there was a little round shade outside the glass to keep the direct light off the house. The porch was four or five feet above street level, and the streetlamp was only about nine feet high, so the light would have been right in your eyes, otherwise. Like the awning, the little shade gave the porch a private feeling. If you’d been walking down the sidewalk, you wouldn’t have been able to see who was sitting in the swing on the porch, just the glow of a cigarette when somebody took a draw. The porch was big enough to hold almost the whole family.
Every once in a while, on those Sunday evenings, people would walk by the house, maybe going down to the end of the street where there was an ice cream store. My mom called it an ice cream parlor, and she told us that she and her friends had spent a lot of time there when they were young, sitting at the marble-topped tables on those heavy wire chairs, eating ice cream with hot fudge over the top. Real hot fudge turned solid almost as soon as you poured it on ice cream, and it melted the ice cream for a minute until it cooled off.
We almost never went down there, because we couldn’t afford bought’n ice cream. My uncles always made ours, if it was the Fourth of July or something, and the kids would take turns on the crank until our arms ached. Whoever wasn’t turning was counting the turns. Pretty soon (although it didn’t seem soon to us), the turning would get too hard for even the big kids, and a man would take over until he was satisfied the ice cream was done. Then he would carefully remove the iron crank thing from the top, wipe off the lid with a cloth—otherwise, you’d taste salt in the first servings—and open it carefully, like it was a treasure box. There would be a wax paper cover under the lid. Slowly lifting the beater out of the ice cream, he’d offer us a taste on his finger before he set the beater on a plate and stuff the remaining ice cream back into the can and replace the wax paper and the lid. Another pile of crushed ice went on top, and a piece of rug laid over the whole thing, "until it cures." One of the kids might be lucky enough to get to lick the whole beater. It tasted like vanilla. Eventually, they’d open the freezer bucket again and take out the can to dish up ice cream for everybody, piling it high on apple pie or peach pie that somebody had just made. Hot pie makes ice cream melt fast, so we’d eat it fast. There were always seconds.
But that was before the streetlight came on. When it was getting dark, someone might bring out what was left of a pie to the porch, and we’d get a little piece then, but usually that was a time just for sitting and talking. I don’t remember what people talked about. Soon it was really dark, and the lightning bugs were so bright you could see them way down the street. It always smelled like fresh-cut grass, and sometimes something sweet. Now, I think that was probably lilac I smelled, but I didn’t know anything about flowers then, except maybe irises and hollyhocks, that my mom grew next to our own house up in Hamilton.
Then my folks would get up and say we were leaving. They’d stand there talking for a long time, though, before they left, and the kids would stand around waiting. Maybe somebody would punch somebody on the arm, and we’d get yelled at, but not very loud, because it was so quiet there. We’d finally get into the car, and Dad would back us out of the drive, and by the time we got to the end of the street I’d be asleep.
Donald Skiff, June 6, 2002