Replacing a Dividing Line with a Little Give and Take



By Paula Ganzi Licata

THE subject of the e-mail message was “Our fence.” My neighbor, Jeannette, was acknowledging what my husband, Robert, and I were happy to ignore: The wooden fence between our properties was falling apart. Like the occasional bits of tree bark and small branches on the lawn, splinters of fence in my flower bed reflected nature taking its course.

It had been installed by our previous neighbors. Jeannette bought their house more than 10 years ago and has put lots of work into it, as Robert and I have with ours: new roof, gutters, windows, paint, brickwork, walkways — the typical To Do list that a house generates. But the fence presented a potential shared project.

The problem? Jeannette’s house is a white ranch with black trim. Ours is a cream Tudor chalet with brown trim. Finding a fence aesthetically suited to both would be a challenge.

She wanted white PVC. I envisioned a blindingly white wall, like the smile of someone who has left bleaching solution on their teeth too long.

Robert and I suggested that a new wooden fence would be less expensive, offer more options in style, size and color (Jeannette had painted her side of the old fence white) and blend into the landscape.

In a good compromise both sides are unhappy, Larry David once said in an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” At a minimum, both lose something. The maintenance-free, long-lasting features of PVC carried a lot of weight, and eventually Robert and I gave in.

Color was the next issue; a two-tone fence was the solution. Jeannette tweaked countless computer-generated designs, and we settled on white posts and trim with almond panels.

Deciding on the height was difficult. Initially, it was to be four feet, the same as the old fence, gradually rising to six feet in our backyards to provide more privacy. But problems arose with the transition section, and Jeannette began to lobby for a continuous six-foot fence. There was no zoning issue, since the fence didn’t start at the street but between our houses, and its size could be softened in the front by using spindles at the top. And Jeannette — who remembers all of this pretty much the same way I do — wanted those backyard sections to be all white. She was willing to pay a little more; we were willing to look at a little white.

Initially we agreed that we would split the cost of the two-tone part of the fence, with Jeannette paying for the white panels in back. But as estimates came in and style negotiations continued, Jeannette thought that unfair and presented her argument pleasantly. Briefly, Robert and I contemplated pulling out, saving money and letting her have her all-white fence. But we wanted the fence to blend with our house, as well as keep a good neighbor our friend. We split the cost down the middle; Jeannette would pay for her gate.

“Thanks, guys! Splitting the fence 50/50 is very fair and generous of you,” she wrote in an e-mail message. We all felt good.

On installation day, Robert, who stayed home from work to keep an eye on things, kept me updated at the office by phone: “They just got here.” “It’s all in pieces like a big Lego set.” “Gotta go, they’re pouring cement for the first post.”

I had visions of coming home to Plasticville, the charm of my 77-year-old house, with its winding brick walkway and copper-trimmed roof, blighted by a bright white fence, sunshine bouncing off a glaring monster wall like lightning deflected off a comic book hero’s shield.

As I walked down my block, the fence came into view slowly, revealing itself panel by panel.

I thought I liked it.

The almond muted the white and visually connected the fence to our house. And the spindles atop each panel and the Gothic finials on each post made it airy and interesting.

But it was a compromise.

We lost a few inches on our side of the driveway flower bed; some of my tulips were now on Jeannette’s side of the fence. And the solid white started one panel too soon and was visible from my driveway.

The day after installation, I was outside cleaning up, moving the displaced soil and taking out the brick border in my driveway flower bed to compensate for the inches lost on our side of the fence. I was startled by the sound of Jeannette’s automatic garage door opening and the slam of her side door. I almost called out “hello” — but how? Over the fence? It was six feet tall. Through the fence? There were no slats, only solid panels with spindles at forehead level. Was there a new etiquette now that we had a new fence? As I continued working, she must have heard the sound of my metal trowel scraping against cement, yet she, too, refrained from calling hello.

Later that day, I heard the heavier footsteps of Jeannette’s boyfriend, Rich, on the other side of the fence, walking down the driveway. (I was already decoding sounds.) When he got to the end of the fence, he poked his head around to my side, though he remained standing on his side. “How you do you like it?” he asked.

I was sitting on my wheeled garden seat. (He must have heard me rolling.) “I like it. I was surprised. I even like the bigness.”

“Yeah, it’s like a wall,” he laughed. “But it looks great.”

I agreed. “Jeannette did a great job designing it.”

It’s been a few months since the new fence was installed, and it hasn’t seemed to change our relationship. Enthusiastic gardeners, Jeannette and I compare notes on our latest plantings and tools. When she went on vacation recently, she asked me to water her flowers and showed me how to unlock her gate and which hoses reached which bed. I admired the long-necked nozzle on one hose.

There’s something surreal about viewing your house from your neighbor’s yard. Standing in Jeannette’s backyard watering her plants, I got the perspective of my house as backdrop to the fence. The two-toned design created balance and harmony between the properties. The fence wasn’t a barrier that divided us, but a project that united us.

The day Jeannette returned, I found a new long-necked nozzle on my hose caddy, with a rolled-up note tied in green ribbon: “Thank you for taking care of my gardens.”

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