Back in the spring, I met with a local fence builder. Masks on, six feet apart, we walked the perimeter of the backyard and discussed what sections needed replacing and how to guard against the deer who regularly leap over five-foot-high walls if there is even a single hosta to be eaten on the other side. When we got to a stretch on the south side where only a short, sloping wall divides the patio from our neighbor’s porch, he asked if I wanted to close the gap with fencing. “You’d have more privacy,” he said.
We live in a neighborhood in suburban New York where the houses are built into a hillside that slopes dramatically up from the Hudson River, and the houses are right on top of one another; it was a big reason we were so charmed by the area 17 years ago, and we accepted that it came with some compromises.
I told the well-meaning fence guy no way.
That fenceless stretch is the spot where, over the years, my neighbor Lori and I have exchanged the day-to-day necessities of living: flour, a roll of packing tape, a quarter cup of chicken broth, and more parenting advice than I can recount. I was seven months pregnant with my second daughter when Lori first leaned over that fence to introduce herself. She was a mother of four—three girls, one boy—and spoke with authority about the things that worried me, like the age when girls need their moms the most. She seemed to know things I didn’t.
During quarantine, our exchanges kicked into a higher gear, this time with Lori’s 24-year-old daughter, Logan, who was 7 when I first met her across that fence. Everyone was limiting their trips to the supermarket, and most local businesses were closed. Over the wall went lemons, soccer ball pumps, logs for the firepit, baking soda (we joked that we hoped the DEA wasn’t monitoring us), and tomato plant seedlings for our victory gardens. It was a symbiotic relationship: In April, when I needed to borrow vanilla extract to make a birthday cake, it arrived with a beribboned bottle and card; the next day, what remained of the birthday cake went right back over the wall.
Was it about the food? Sure. (Isn’t everything?) But mostly it was nice to know that we were, as always, in it together. Heading into Thanksgiving, and whatever comes next in this long, hard year, let’s remember to look out for our neighbors, look out for each other.
I have such gratitude for all Dinner: A Love Story readers — I always have, but this past year more than ever. Thanks for looking out for me.
This originally appeared in “How to Be Hopeful Right Now” in Real Simple’s November issue.