Essay: The pathway we share in all seasons

As New Englanders, our families don't 'drop in' on each other, but the break in our stone wall does seem to invite informal passage.

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My neighbor beat me to it. The late winter storm hit us with 10 inches of light snow, and by the time I reached the break in the waist-high stone wall between our homes, Jim had shoveled the pathway clean.

Our families have been good neighbors for two years now, sharing potluck dinners, Kristine's three dogs (Frances Ann, Mabel, and Alice), and the bright spirit of their 5-year-old daughter, Olivia, for whom Francie and I have become surrogate grandparents.

Never once, though, have Jim and I talked about the need to shovel the 20-foot path connecting our yards. After the first storm last winter, we trampled down the snow. But after the second storm, Jim dug out his half of the path, and when I noticed, I did the other half to complete the passage. Since then, we have always shoveled the path, but never at the same time. Jim seems to enjoy getting to it first. So do I.

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After each snowstorm, I think of Robert Frost's "Mending Wall" and his opening line, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," a preface to the spring wall-mending two farmers share. But for me – and, I expect, for Jim – our wall and the path we clear through it have become a place of connection, not separation.

In the spring, Francie and Kristine discuss the watering of flowers on each side of the wall, the transplanting of two dogwood trees, and how best to treat the holly bush we added to their garden.

All summer long, Olivia commands a dozen painted, plastic dinosaurs that run and snarl along the top of the wall, startling us as we walk by to get the newspaper each morning. The beasts appear quite at home on the rocks, although they seem odd company for the pink-tailed pony that joined them last fall.

Olivia and I sometimes use the top of the wall as a trading post; she gives me a rock from her collection, and I find one of my beach stones to give her in return.

As New Englanders, our families don't "drop in" as friends may do in other parts of the country, but the break in our wall does seem to invite informal passage.

I miss my old dog, and when I go for the mail, Frances Ann, Mabel, and Alice treat me well. They are penned in by an invisible electric fence, so they bark and prance to ask me to cross over to give their ears a scratch, and when I do, they often offer me a wet tennis ball or well-chewed stick in exchange.

Olivia finds reason to run through the break in the wall into our yard to chase her cat and then swing up a limb or two of our low-hanging beech tree, the best "climber" in the neighborhood.

This winter, we found a stuffed toy turtle, the size of a catcher's mitt, straddling one of the lower limbs. Olivia says it isn't hers, so we're leaving it to rest where it is till another child may claim it in the spring.

When I found Jim had beaten me to the shoveling this time, I felt the need to make a modest contribution by widening the entrances to the path, making it look more welcoming. And I remembered from my teaching days that the narrator in Frost's poem doesn't agree with his neighbor's somewhat cranky admonition, "Good fences make good neighbors."

I will look at the poem again because I think Frost would agree that the break in our lovely old stone wall gives us the path we like to keep between us.

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