Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Good Neighbors

by Pamela Duncan

Every weekday morning for years, rain or shine, cold or hot, foggy or clear, my across-the-road neighbor Marie stood on her front porch and waited, not for the newspaper or the sunrise, but for me. Every morning she waved me off to work, waved even after the pine trees in her front yard came between us. I couldn’t see her anymore, but I knew she was there. And if I didn’t pull out of my driveway by nine a.m., she was on the phone wanting to know why.

Long before she got the idea for my morning send-off, Marie showed me what it meant to be a good neighbor. It was something I hadn’t experienced since childhood, much of which I spent in the Black Mountain mill village where my grandparents lived. There, the neighbors all knew each other, knew each other’s business, visited over the hedges, shared seeds and scraps and gossip, kept an eye on each other’s houses and children and animals. Then my family moved to the suburbs where nobody ever came calling. If it hadn’t been for us kids, the adults wouldn’t have known a single detail about the people they passed in their cars every day. Kids are neighborhood spies; they infiltrate foreign territory and bring back valuable information about who’s getting a new dog next week and who’s fighting and who had beer cans in their trash.

Elderly folks can be just as intrepid, just as fearless as kids when it comes to reconnoitering a new neighbor. When I first moved to the countryside of Alamance county, I automatically did as I’d seen my parents do in that suburb: I kept myself to myself. But Marie had other ideas. Every day when I got home from work and went to check the mail, here she’d come out her front door, hollering, “Hey there, neighbor!” as she made her slow way to our twin mailboxes. Out of politeness I’d wait, stand by the road and chat a few minutes, and escape to the house as quickly as possible. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy talking with Marie, but at the end of a long work day, all I wanted to do was go in the house, shut the door, and decompress in front of the TV or with a good book, something that required no politeness or participation on my part. It got to where I’d wait until dark to go to the mailbox.

Then I got the opportunity to work at home. For the first time in my adult life I knew the luxury of waking up without an alarm clock, puttering around my silent house with no requirements on my time or attention other than meeting my publisher’s deadline. For the first few weeks it was glorious, wonderful. Bliss. I thought I must be the luckiest person in the world. But day by day the silence grew bigger and I started to envy all my friends having fun at work while I was stuck home with nobody to play with. I’d never expected to be lonely, but I was. I found myself watching for the mailman, but not because of the mail. Because of Marie. We’d meet at the mailboxes, or sometimes she’d beat me to the draw and carry my mail over and we’d sit on the screen porch and talk.

And I started listening, paying attention to what she was saying instead of plotting how to get away. I finally realized Marie was giving me a gift, the gift of neighborliness, the gift of herself. The only thing required of me was that I listen. How easy it was to please her, by simply listening, and she returned the favor. Talking and listening and laughing at the mailbox, on our porches, and at our kitchen tables, we became friends. Marie reached out and kept reaching until finally at last I reached back.

When did the definition of a good neighbor change? It used to be somebody who stopped mowing or gardening to chat a while, who kept an eye on your house and picked up your paper and mail when you went out of town, and who brought food when you were sick or had a death in the family. Now the definition of a good neighbor seems to be somebody who remains anonymously indoors and only knows your name if they read it on the mailbox. Having experienced both, the old definition suits me much better.

Marie lives in town now. For health reasons, she had to move to a nursing home. Sometimes I almost can’t bear to look at her house, knowing she won’t be coming out on the porch to wave at me, knowing when night falls there won’t be any friendly light in the darkness. I came to depend on her presence, on the comfort of knowing I had a good neighbor, a friend just over the road who paid attention and cared whether I got up in the morning, who wanted me to know I wasn’t alone.

Now I’m about to move away, too, and it breaks my heart to leave my friends and neighbors. But as long as she can dial a telephone, I know Marie will never stop being my good neighbor. She’ll keep calling to check on me, to share her news, to gossip, to laugh. It won't be the same as meeting at the mailboxes or sitting on the screen porch together, but we'll take what we can get.

(Novelist Pamela Duncan is the author of Moon Women, a Southeast Booksellers Association Award Finalist, and Plant Life, which won the 2003 Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction. She is the recipient of the 2007 James Still Award for Writing about the Appalachian South, awarded by the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Her third novel, The Big Beautiful, was published in March 2007. Visit her website at


River Jordan said...


Patience to listen seems such a quickly disappearing art. But listening is a part of our heritage and of being human. Thanks for reminding us to stop closing our doors to the world. Beautiful expressed.


Kerry Madden said...

This was just beautiful, Pam. Makes me almost want to speak to my neighbor next door, but he's no Jessie. I talk to his crazy barking dogs though. Thank you for a beautiful piece. Good luck with the move.

All best

kimberly said...

Pamela, this was lovely and thought-provoking. A couple of months ago a For Sale sign went up in the yard two doors down. We recently learned that the owner had died. It seems the closer the houses, the less we know about our neighbors.