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Short Fences Kept Italian American Folks Neighborly
by Cookie Curci
Most of the memories I recall from my childhood concern my family circle. They were the people who cast the greatest reflection on my life. However, there were times when a stranger became a close part of our daily living and in the process became a part of our family.
There were many strangers who moved into the older ethnic neighborhoods, but they didn't remain strangers for very long. A good reason for that was the close proximity between houses. And also the fact that there were no tall fences between our yards to promote privacy or impede socializing.
Most people in the neighborhood didn't need or want that kind of privacy. What they wanted was a good friend and what they needed was help from their neighbors, help with their daily chores and harvesting, or perhaps a hammer and a handful of penny nails. Borrowing supplies from one another was commonplace, things such as: garden equipment, canning jars for the fruit season, wine barrels or a winepress for the making of wine, or maybe just an old fashioned helping hand. No one family had everything necessary to run a large household or to harvest their backyard fruit trees, but each family had at least one item or tool that their neighbor lacked and eventually, through sharing with each other, every homeowner would have what they needed to succeed.
It was with this kind of sharing with neighbors that my immigrant grandparents set up housekeeping at the start of the 20th century. After arriving here from Italy, they moved into communities where other Italian immigrants, like themselves, had already settled or were settling in. The young immigrants helped each other build homes; plant seeds, cultivate their orchards and created a close knit Italian American community for themselves and their families. The path between our houses was never unused long enough to sprout a weed. I believe the success of the Italian American community was due not only to the help garnered from neighbors but the fact that each household knew their neighbor was available to offer help when it was needed.
Later, in the 1940s, when my parents, (the first-generation Italian Americans), set up housekeeping, it was in a more eclectic neighborhood in a different part of town. But still the short fences remained between houses. These waist high fences were an open invitation for communication between neighbors. In those days, the communicating of information between friends didn't come through a cell phone, a computer or email message. It was spread though word of mouth over the back fences of town. Talking to our neighbors over the fence was as common as today's cell phone user.
When dad landscaped his new yard, he marked off his property with a short, flimsy fence, made of decorative wire and a little picket fence around the backyard. It was made that way for a reason, to mark the perimeters of his property, nothing more, and nothing less. The height was never more than 3ft and that was for a very good reason. If it were any higher the homeowners wouldn't be able to see each other or see into each other's back yard. And seeing into your neighbor's yard was done, not out of curiosity, but to watch over each other's homes as we would watch over our own.
Because of the waist high fences we could watch as our neighbors went about their household chores, mowing the lawns, pruning the trees, shelling the walnut harvest, planting the vegetable gardens, raking and burning the autumn leaves. And with each chore, our next door neighbors knew that we could be counted on to lend a hand, or a tool to help make that job a little easier. And, in turn, they would do the same for our family. Each household helping one another created a strong bond among the community and eventually personal success for its people and its neighborhoods.
Neighbors were a poignant part of my childhood memories. The sights and sounds they created while going about their daily lives still resounds in my memory. I can remember summer days especially well, and how the constant squeak and bounce of our neighbors screen door was as common to my ears as the sound of our own back door. I can still hear our neighbor, Mrs. Nelson, daily calling out to her boys, "Don't let the screen door slam"! No sooner would she have said the words and the door would slam shut with a resounding 'bang"! Such sounds never bothered my household, any more than the amateur trumpet player, the drum virtuoso, or the player piano that peddled out a tune every evening. These were the sounds of life in progress and they came from every home at one time or another.
On most days it wasn't at all unusual to find our neighbor's dog resting happily in our backyard while our cat nestled cozily on the rooftop of our neighbor's doghouse. When papa barbecued his homemade Italian sausages the enticing smell of smoky flavors and spices was always an open invitation to his neighbors to come over and sample his latest sausage recipe. And, when it was time for a backyard party on a warm summer night, the party always included mama's accordion and the surrounding neighbors. A quick call over the back fence, or the welcoming wave of a hand, was the only invitation needed between friends. Having a short fence made it easy to talk to the families that grew up next door to us, to observe their family events as they happened; To share in their special closeness, celebrating their joys and, other times, experiencing each other's sorrows and losses.
In the afternoon, when Mom set the coffeepot on to boil, the freshly perked aroma, wafting through the air, signaled her next door friends that coffee was about to be served. The coffee ritual was another form of communication between neighbors. Each woman brought with her some family news or neighborhood gossips. They shared a little story or family advice with each other before returning home to their busy workday. Weekends brought the neighborhood men outside to prune the trees, sharpen the blades on their push lawn mowers, tinker on a broken household appliance or garden tool and socialize with each other about baseball and politics. Today, like most modern homes, a 6-foot high fence surrounds my backyard.
Visiting my neighbors over the back fence is virtually impossible, let alone seeing them at all? If I need a tool I buy one at the local home & garden specialty shop. If a small appliance breaks down, we just toss it out in the trash and buy another one. If I crave a barbecue dinner I go out to the nearest restaurant and order one. And because most households in my neighborhood employ gardeners, I rarely see a neighbor out mowing their lawn, or pruning their rose bushes. There's a Super market or Quick Stop on every corner of town leaving us little need to borrow a cup of sugar from a neighbor.
Yes, we've come a long way since our impoverished grandparents first set up housekeeping on the poorer sides of town. And, yes, we are monetarily better off today then our ancestors were back then.
My parents and grandparent's lives were simple ones when compared to today's high tech modern lifestyle. And their personal processions much less adorned. But what they experienced in their lifetime was something today's generation can't put a price on-- that a neighbor's friendship was a precious possession, and with a neighbor's help they would experience the sharing of customs and traditions in a way we may never will. And the greatest experience of all- their constructing of a successful Italian American community on little else then shared muscles and borrowed tools.
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