A better fence made us even better neighbors

Over the past two days, 18 people have called about the free wire fence that I recently had taken down and replaced. It is a sturdy old fence - rusty, twisted, with fence posts as big as horses' legs, the tops nailed with tin, and rotted at the bottom. Neighbor Amy estimates that it's at least 40 years old.

When I moved here to the Rainier Valley in southeastern Seattle six years ago, Amy was the first neighbor to be friendly to me, and we visited regularly over that wire fence. A so-called senior citizen, Amy is hardly senior in any sense of the word.

On our first visit she proceeded to give me descriptions of everyone else in the neighborhood, defining them by their skin color or ethnicity. I was shocked - she's talking about race! - and listened politely, trying to hide my discomfort. To her, race was no big deal - everyone had a label, including the neighbors who were white.

"Let's see, there's Pete in the grey house - he's black, and next to him are the Santos - she's Mexican and he's Korean," and on and on. I would never speak of people in these terms, so her descriptions were at once puzzling and yet refreshingly honest.

The Rainier Valley is called the Neighborhood of Nations in guidebooks, and rightly so. The diversity is rich and wonderful. Amy and her husband are Japanese. Eva across the street is from Mexico, the folks next to her are Samoan, and neighbor Jeb, on the other side of my house, is white.

One day during one of our fence visits, Amy casually mentioned that she and her family had been sent to an internment camp during World War II.

"What?" I said, incredulous. "There was an internment here? In Seattle?" I had no idea. It was not something we'd studied at my school when I was growing up in Long Island, N.Y.

Amy told me how she and her family, along with many other Japanese-American families in the Pacific Northwest, had been rounded up and shipped out to an internment camp in Puyallup, Wash., south of Seattle. She was 16 at the time and says she feels no bitterness. I marvel at how she and her family survived.

Amy is a gardener. At 4 feet 9 inches, she is tiny but strong. Daily she is out on her hands and knees tending the garden, rain or shine, painstakingly pulling weeds, cutting ivy, and pruning. On her back porch she has a box of shoes - garden shoes, perhaps, that she puts on to weed and hoe. When her husband calls, she comes running. She and Fred have been married for almost 50 years. He is a former Drivers' Education teacher and wrestling coach, and she was a stay-at-home mom. She is ever mindful that he will call, and periodically glances back at the house as she visits with me.

"I'd better go," she'll say, "Fred will wonder what happened to me." Or, "I don't want to keep you. I have to go start supper for Fred."

During the two weeks that the old fence came down and the new six-foot-tall cedar fence was being built, Amy came over every day with cold drinks for the young workers. On several occasions when I came home from work she was out clearing brush along the fence line - "to make it look nicer," she said, when I begged her not to trouble herself.

In the middle of the project, a huge holly bush had to go. As Fred used his chain saw and cut it down, Amy helped me load up every last prickly branch into yard waste bags.

As the fence went up, Amy and I marveled at its beauty - but secretly I was already missing her company.

"Amy," I said, "It's too high. Now we can't visit and I can't bring you cookies." (I have nominated myself as the neighborhood cookiemaker.) "Maybe I should put in a gate so we can still visit."

"No," she said. "We'll use step stools. Save your money."

Still, it didn't feel right not being able to visit with a person who was generous with her time, never complained, and was my neighborhood friend. Two days before the fence's completion, a section remained just wide enough for a gate. It was in the far corner of the yard, not the usual place for a gate, but fine for access between the two yards. I instructed the carpenter to change his plans.

Amy wasn't enthusiastic. "Why waste your money?" she said. "Besides, every kid in the neighborhood will be running through your yard. Fred and I won't be here forever, you know. Save your money."

But money doesn't buy friendship - at best, it merely helps it grow. I like my neighbors very much.

Good fences make good neighbors, wrote American poet Robert Frost. Yes, I concur, gabbing with Amy by the new gate - especially when they can see one another.

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