The porch light on

I can't help but think of our old porch light at this time of year. I love to see houses lit with them in these cold November evenings.

It was the beacon of our family of nine living in a Cape Cod house in the middle of the last century. We all arrived home for dinner at the same time. It seems to me now that porch lights symbolized the fragile hopes of our lives during the uncertain and anxious days of the Cold War. Fathers stayed with mothers, grandmas and grandpas lived up the street and children and dogs played in the backyard. The days were shorter then and the world seemed a lot smaller. We just wanted to make sure that everyone was home in time for supper.

I can still see in my mind's eye the porch light of the home I grew up in more than 50 years ago. The front porch extended from the northeast corner of our grey house to the front door. The light was mounted on the wall near the door. A small glass shade covered the bulb collecting insects and cobwebs. For some reason that light captured my imagination. It wasn't just for the fascinating collection of desiccated bugs inside. It seemed to represent the life of our family flickering against the dark forces of the night. From a distance the light was dim and yellow, but it seemed to grow stronger the closer you got to home.

I sensed my first stirrings of individuality then. Even as I played in a field with other boys, at dusk I felt myself somehow apart. Darkness had a way of separating you from brothers and friends, and even from yourself. You became more aware of your own shadow. Watching it in the half-light of early evening, you realized how strange your own form was. In the in-between world of pre-adolescence the darkening of day presaged the changes you would soon be undergoing. You sensed there was darkness ahead of you and streets that you would one day have to walk alone, but the porch light always guided you home. And home meant that you were loved.

In the fall Dad took down the wood framed porch screens, then put the storm windows back up. It was a sure sign that the last warm days were waning and winter was coming on. The early darkness cast a spell over my spirit and the enclosed porch was a safe place where I could shake the demons off my heels. The light was also a signal for us kids to come home. I don't think I was ever late once for supper during my childhood. You couldn't afford to be late with seven kids vying for a good place at the dining room table. But more than that, we simply obeyed our mother. It was her love and gentle words that drew us all home. She was the true light like the North Star that we followed.

Houses weren't all lit up in those days as they are now. Our outlying neighborhood, thickly ringed with trees, was pitch dark at night. At sundown the porch lights went on promptly all up and down Old Town Road. Children came inside from the yards and fathers began to pull into the driveways after a long day at the factory or the office. They returned around the same time every night with the same sequence of dads slowing the family car and easing it into the garage. We watched each of our fathers arriving only minutes apart looking earnest and somewhat weary. The 1950s was a time of conformity. People seemed to take pride in being like everyone else. Everyone in the whole neighborhood was safely home before dark.

When Mother put the porch light on, we knew our time outside was over. We were usually across the street playing soldier in the tall grasses of an open meadow. As the sun dimmed, I could feel the cold rising up from the earth. The large oak tree in my friend's yard stretched out in thick limbs in silhouette as the shadows lengthened. Darkness wasn't a part of the soul of America in those days. Families strove to be cheerful and optimistic, with everyone at church on Sunday. Even kids knew to say "cheese" for the camera with a big, bright smile. But it was still a dangerous world in the 1950s after the A-bomb and the Russian threats of annihilation. Our innocence was protected by the warmth of the porch light. It was what we had against the terrors of the latest newscast and the nightmares of childhood.

Darkness was much more of a divider than it is now. There was no going out again after supper, no trips to the mall, no lessons and no playdates. Darkness was the end of the day -- something ominous and final until the sun rose the next morning and the world was reborn and sparkling again. Even as we played in our yards, the gloom crept out of the woods and covered the houses and garages. How strange it was to watch the daylight weaken and disappear before 5 o'clock. I never got used to it.

Our picture window in the front room was also brightly illuminated. I knew that mother would be in the kitchen cooking dinner. There would be a pot of potatoes boiling on the red burner of the electric stove, the steam rising up to the ceiling in big white billows. The youngest children would already be inside watching cartoons or making up little games. Much to my amazement the whole domestic scene was framed in the big window over the front porch. It was like a mirror reflecting the image of our family, but in an odd distorted way we stood outside in the cold looking in at the people gathering around the table. I knew then that life wasn't simple, that the mirrored likeness of us opened a world that I could hardly grasp.

Maybe it was my first intimation that life was double, and that there really was no innocence. The divisions between night and day were just a thing membrane of pretense to keep us all from getting lost in the darkness. Maybe the porch light could never be enough. I kept my thoughts to myself because I had no way to express them to anyone. I was still a child and children see through a glass darkly.

My father was the last one inside as if he alone were brave enough for the night. I watched his car turn into the driveway and the headlights go out. Then I ran to the living room. He shouldered open the porch door and in a few steps was at the big oak front door, stamping his feet loudly on the mat. He opened the door a crack, peeking his red head inside. Then he stepped in with his whole body, his metal lunch bucket and his factory badge in his hand.

Everyone shouted, "Daddy's home!" I felt the cold clinging to his coat. He shut the door behind him against the draft, closing our family off from the darkness. Dad walked into the kitchen and gave mother a big hug. They were my champions, and my all my fears vanished. Everyone was safely in for the night. Life could have a happy ending if you took it one day at a time.

Then Dad would turn to me and say, "Bare, will you go and turn the porch light off? We don't need it on anymore."