My husband and I moved into our “starter” home more than 25 years ago. Two renovations and three kids later, we’re still here.
Soon after we moved in, we met our neighbors Marilyn and Danny who lived behind us. We shared a chain-link fence in our backyards. Years later, Marilyn would retell the story of how we met with the same excitement as our first meeting.
After having just lit her Friday night candles on her window sill, she looked up to see the reflection of her candles in our window. Or did she? It turned out that I, too, had lit my candles. We came to know each other at our shared fence. Danny built cinder block steps on his side so that I could more easily get my pregnant body over to swim in their pool. We helped them in their yard while listening to their stories.
My neighborhood was developed for GIs after WWII, on rolling farmland where suburbia now sprawls. Plots were divvied up, separated by chain-link fences just over three feet tall.
The chain-link fence allowed all the neighbors to have a continuous green vista of the whole block. Our kids saw who was playing outside simply by looking out the window. Dogs sniffed each other and ran alongside their shared fence. We saw if Mrs. Babington needed help mowing her lawn. A stray ball could easily be retrieved. Tomato plants wove in and out of the chain-link, not knowing which side to call home.
Marilyn and Danny are gone, their pool filled in. A new house now sits behind us with a six-foot-tall plastic “privacy fence” in place of the short chain-link. Sadly, I wouldn’t recognize my neighbors if I passed them on the street.
Our next-door neighbor, Mrs. Babington is also gone. A new house and wooden privacy fence went up, cutting us off socially and visually, from most of our neighbors. Our backyard, which once felt huge when our grasses blended together through the chain-link, now seems to have shrunk. Our view, once undisturbed for an entire block, is now restricted to the fence lines.
When a fence is too tall to climb and too solid to let in light, it feels less like a fence and more like a wall. Our old chain-link fence connected more than just metal. It linked neighbors to neighbors which made our block feel like a family.
We all know the saying “Good fences make good neighbors.” But Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall continues that conversation with this:
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
A backyard barbeque, a family gathering, or when you just want to read a good book in peace are all moments in time when you understandably might not want to be disturbed. You just want a break from the world. Yet, these permanent six-foot-tall fences feel more like a “cutting off” than a “taking a break.”
Maybe this is the wave of the future. Each of us inside our home, behind our fences – both real and imagined. Maybe this is what feels safe for some, necessary even, for others. And maybe I’m in the minority. But I can’t help but feel that so much more is lost when we do this. We end up not knowing our neighbors, not communicating our needs, not sharing our harvest, not knowing who needs help, not recognizing the very people who live around us.
I may not have a choice to have a wall fence me in, but it doesn’t have to look like one from where I sit. It happens to be the perfect canvas for some sunflowers. Real or imagined.
My neighbors (on the other side) and I share the last bit of chain-link fence on the block. I share with them cherries from my tree and they welcome us to jump on their trampoline. Sometimes we schmooze over the fence and other times we leave each other alone. It’s not that hard to figure out. We agree that the fence isn’t pretty but we’ve also agreed not to get rid of it. And if we ever do, we’ll swap it for a beautiful three-foot-high slatted one that lets the light shine through.
Bonni Berger is a postpartum doula, lactation counselor, and freelance writer. Her work has been published in Kveller, BLUNTmoms, GrownandFlown, DC Area Moms Blog, and Bethesda Magazine. She can be found in the suburbs of Washington D.C. and at www.bethesdadoula.com where she is loving the fourth trimester alongside her new-mom and dad clients.