A handyman who visited our house a few years ago admired our screen door and suggested that we do our best to treat it well. “If it ever wears out,” he told me, “you’ll never buy one as good to take its place.”
Not that the door is much to look at. A simple frame of wood with two squares of screening isn’t going to draw a lot of attention from the editors of Architectural Digest. But someone — perhaps it was our home’s previous owner, who was good with carpentry — had built the door by hand, careful to make it stronger than most of the models on a store shelf. Our visitor, who liked wood work done well, encouraged us to give the door the respect it deserved.
But there’s something about a screen door that invites abuse. The hands of children intuitively open a screen door by pushing at the screen, not the frame. Over time, the mesh bulged, and a hundred summer storms rusted the hinges and ravaged the paint. Being slow with tools, I’ve needed a couple of recent weekends to replace the hardware, install new screening, change out some rotted molding, and give the door a fresh coat of paint.
Newly repaired, the screen door now stands ready to serve functions that are largely ceremonial. In a home that’s usualy sealed to accommodate air conditioning, we seldom need a screen door to let in a breeze but keep out bugs, its most practical role for generations of Southerners.
But I like the gentle tock-tock that the screen door registers each time a child of summer goes out or returns inside. I listen as the clever spring hooked at its center draws the door back to the house, where it slaps against the door frame like a boat nudging the dock. The back-and-forth of the screen door is how I track long summer afternoons. Screen doors mark the rhythm of our days at this time of year, as patiently as a metronome ticking away the hours.
Repairing the door required me to gaze through metal screening for a few afternoons, something I hadn’t done in a long time. The home of my childhood included a screened porch where we spent summer evenings watching the passage of cars along the street or the occasional progress of a pedestrian down the sidewalk. The porch windows reminded me vaguely of the screen in confessionals that divided penitent from priest. That’s probably why, as I sat on the porch and peered through the gauzy weave of wire mesh, the world seemed to be revealing its secrets to me and me alone, a shared confidence between summer and boy. Years later, I’ve never quite lost the idea that summer is my private treasure, a season made expressly for my satisfaction.
The smell of rain misting an old screened porch is one of the more sublime scents of a Southern summer. The freshness of an evening shower, when blended with the bouquet of rust from an old screened window, speaks of the present and past mingled in a single moment, which is how time tends to operate here in the South.
All of this came to mind the other day as I put our screen door back on its hinges and relatched the spring, each of its travels outward touched once again by the promise of return.