I grew up in the outskirts of a small town, not in a neighborhood, but not really in the country. Our house was on Main Street, which was really just a mile-long stretch of a busy state road, where the houses were closer together and drivers were supposed to slow down. Instead of our backyard being adjacent to another family's backyard, it butted up against a bean field. We did, however, have wonderful next-door neighbors on either side.
When I was very young, both homes were occupied by beautiful, elderly, white-haired widows. Despite that I was so young and my memories of that time are more like snap-shots, I can still close my eyes and imagine each of them. I remember sitting on the double porch-swing with Mrs. Brown. It was painted green and occupied a spot in her front yard in the shade of two maple trees. She would let me swing with her and talk, I'm sure about complete nonsense, but I still felt like she wanted me to be there with her and I loved our visits.
I remember Mrs. Rankin, on the other side, who called me "the pig-tails girl" since my mother almost always had my hair in two ponytails to keep it out of my face. I remember her minuscule galley kitchen that had a thin shelf all the way around, on which she displayed different kinds of tea tins. When she eventually got too old to live on her own and moved to a home, I ended up with a little red tin that had once held some kind of British loose-leaf tea. I don't remember her giving it to me, but I still have it tucked away in a box of keepsakes.
When I was six, a young family moved in where Mrs. Brown had one lived. A year later, Mrs. Rankin was replaced by another young family. Both of them became like extended family to us. Even after they eventually moved away, we have all remained close.
At some point, during one of my parents' landscaping phases, they decided to install a split-rail fence around the front and side of their property. In the side between the house where Mrs. Brown had lived, they left a gap in the fence at the base of the small hill in the backyard, where we could easily pass back-and-forth between our backyard and the next. Shrubbery eventually grew together overhead, creating a 'secret passage' sort of feel for the opening.
Our families made the trip through that passage so often over the years, that the grass wore away between the fence posts. Countless cook-outs and afternoon visits and shared dinners at each house left us all with strings of memories. When I close my eyes and think about it, I can still see how the adults would have to duck slightly to avoid the over-growth when coming or going, and how the kids would run back-and-forth between the yards like they were a single, magical playland.
Now I live out in the country where our closest neighbors are empty-nesters who keep to themselves. My husband and I both work full time, so family time takes precedence over daily visits with friends. Don't get me wrong, I love watching my boys grow up as best friends by default, since there are no other kids nearby for them to play with every day. I like living where there is no traffic and I can hear the pair of owls calling to each other in the woods at night. Yet sometimes I can't help but feel nostalgic for a time and place where friends as close as family were just on the other side of an opening in the fence.