When was the last time you sat on an old-fashioned porch swing? It’s not something anyone forgets. The swing must be the right kind, made of thin wooden slats. If ever painted, the paint must have flaked off to the point where the wood’s present color is most accurately described as “lichen.”
The swing must be suspended from chain, coupled to metal hooks screwed into the porch’s wooden ceiling. Both hooks and chain must have matching coats of rust. Extra length of chain must dangle down past the hooks so that it smacks against its tensioned, load-bearing better half, just off beat with each back-and-forth rock of the swing.
Overlaid against this jangled smack is a dull creak of rust against rust, each chain link contributing its own tone to the whole. The sum is greater than its parts; there is no other sound on Earth that resembles an old porch swing in motion. There is no other sound quite as soothing for an afternoon nap.
And because it’s a place heaven-made for napping, the swing must be covered in a quilt. The quilt will be ragged but clean; it has been selected from the “good” indoor quilts for this holiest of holies, the highest fulfillment of an elderly quilt’s days, covering the swing. This quilt is your protection against splinters and (remaining) sharp flakes of paint. It must be soft. There’s a special softness that cotton takes on after the colors have faded and the cloth has spent several decades in use and washing machines. That is the sort of softness you want your porch swing quilt to have.
The quilt should be pink, yellow, or (rarely) white; soft shades of green are sometimes acceptable too. The pink copes the best with the inevitable Kool-aid stains. No other color blends so well with every flavor from Grape to Strawberry Raspberry Fructose Burst. Pink will also embrace watermelon drippings, popsicle melt, and ice cream runoff; looking ahead to the Fall, it will sometimes manage chili, although that is considered pushing your luck.
The front porch swing is the Special Spot. If you look around a gathering, there are three groups who sit on front porch swings in company: the Older Folks, the New Mother, and the Little Kids. Not at the same time, of course – there is only so much forgiveness to go around in the face of sure disaster.
Usually it starts out with the Little Kids, early in the evening. The New Mother will come next, after small bodies and enthusiastic swing rocking has been chased off the porch. A few Older Folks will gravitate over to the New Mother, and (if there’s room) the most senior may take their place on the swing beside her. When she leaves to “take care of” Little So-&-So1, the next senior takes her spot, and so it goes2.
But porch swings are best, in my opinion, when there’s no one else around. There’s a special loneliness to a Midwestern summer afternoon. The streets and yards are empty. The birds have given up. The cicadas pursue their own noisy ends, competing with the hum of air conditioners. The shadows are harsh, the light blistering. And if you are outside, it feels entirely possible that you are the last human on the planet.
But you are the last human on a planet with a porch swing, finally, to yourself.
The smack of the chains and the creak of wood, the smell of sun-roasted cotton quilt. Everything is faded and a little out of place in time. You could be in the 1920s, the ‘50s, the ‘90s: when humanity meets the first time traveler, they will have just woken, confused, from a high summer nap on a porch swing somewhere in the Midwest.
If the future is smart, it will ignore the time traveler and look at the porch swing.
They will see an unfamiliar, unlovely object. The wood is worn and spintered, the chains are a tetanus hazard, the quilt is unsanitary and covered in blotches of red, brown and whatever color Strawberry Raspberry Fructose Burst dries into3.
The smaller children will be the first to investigate. They’ll all pile on in a heap and rock the swing as far as it will go, to the sound of straining chains and their parents’ caution. After this trial by fire, the swing will be deemed safe. The new mothers and elders will carefully, gradually, test it.
Very late at night, after most everyone has gone home, there may be young couples and teenagers who use the swing – but no one will know anything the next morning. Plausible deniability is a wonderful thing.
And in the late afternoon, when everyone really has disappeared, a lone child will sit rocking, half asleep, back and forth. There will be a hum; perhaps cicadas, perhaps air conditioners.
The shadows will stretch, and the light will stay the same; the light will fade, and the shadows will remain. The years will rock back, and forth, back, and forth, a midsummer lullaby.
Some sort of pendulum has set this motion, this archetype Foucault always caught between pegs. Some sort of time passes on an old-fashioned porch swing, but it’s the same time every time. It’s the time between Someday and Yesterday. The time of naps, loneliness, and cicadas, the only time measured on a Midwestern summer afternoon. Someday it might change; Someday always marks the time of change.
Someday, in the very distant future – even the stains from the Strawberry Raspberry Fructose Burst might fade.
But not as long as there’s an old-fashioned porch swing around.
1 No I don’t know the baby’s name, I’m just here for the porch swing, alright?
2 Very much later on, after the company has really cleared out, a fourth group consisting of young couples and teenagers may use the porch swing for their own nefarious purposes – but I’ve been advised it’s better to leave well enough alone. Plausible deniability is a wonderful thing.
3 I’ve never actually seen a dried stain from any flavor with more than two fruits in the name. They just seem to turn into a progressively stickier gel, a sort of La Brea Tar Pit of fruit flies and mosquitoes.