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Life lessons learned: Piper Center director shares ‘Porch Stories'

August 30, 2006

It wasn't a real porch, but that doesn't matter.

Jewell Parker Rhodes learned many life lessons sitting on some old, worn steps – a stoop – with her grandmother in Pittsburgh.

Rhodes, creative director of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, has preserved those lessons – and her fond memory of “Grandma” – in a new book titled “Porch Stories: A Grandmother's Guide to Happiness.”

The book will be released by Atria Books Sept. 12, to coincide with National Grandparents Day Sept. 10.

“Porch Stories” is as much a tribute to Rhodes' grandmother as it is a remembrance of those life lessons she taught, such as, “You never need an excuse for joy … or for a block party, Grandmother's favorite impromptu recipe for lifting the spirit for the whole neighborhood,” and, “Everyone is a mixed-blood stew … embrace humanity.”

Rhodes' mother abandoned her when she was 8 months old, and she was raised by her grandmother, Ernestine (whose given name readers don't learn until the end of the book).

The household included Grandma's husband, Rev (short for Reverend); Rhodes' divorced father and her sister, Tonie; and Rhodes' widowed aunt and her three children.

“All of us folks strained the contours of the house,” Rhodes writes. “There was never a place to just be. Never any privacy. You were always running into, stumbling over someone.”

During Pittsburgh's sweltering summers, Grandma, Rhodes and the rest of the family retreated to the porch to seek relief from the heat and humidity.

Sitting on the porch, “we'd feel expansive, like we lived in an oasis rather than an industrial ghetto,” Rhodes writes.

On the porch, Grandma told stories to Rhodes, who acted each time as if she'd never heard them before. Sometimes there would be an expected story, but told “new and fresh beyond measure.”

The stories contained the life lessons – Grandma's guide to happiness. They included:

• The story of how slaves changed into blackbirds and flew to freedom, which taught several lessons: “Reap what you sow; do good and it'll fly right back to you; catch your spirit up in a world of joy.”

• Stories about a loving couple that Grandma knew “down South,” which yielded several maxims: “Never underestimate the power of feelings. Being well-loved means good memories.”

Rhodes said her grandmother has appeared as a character in all her books, including “Voodoo Dreams,” “Voodoo Season,” “Magic City” and “Douglass' Women,” but it wasn't until about eight years ago that she started writing about her family – and about her as a person.

Unfortunately, Grandmother will never get to read her book, because she died unexpectedly at the age of 52.

But she would, undoubtedly, be proud that her “Porch Lessons” – such as, “Little things add up to big” – stuck.

“You remember that, Jewell, girl,” she admonished.

“I did,” Rhodes writes. “Remembered every word.”