An American Dream
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
It is highly unlikely that Rita Poirier ever heard of the fences of Robert Frost’s pastoral poetry, neither is it probable that she ever read any Frost, for although the two lived in the same New England, no two people could have travelled on more dissimilar paths. But, upon seeing a beautiful fence, Rita did respond in a way that the laureate would certainly have recognized and celebrated.
But the reality was that the landscape and the conditions that made Rita Poirier what she was were vastly different than Robert Frost’s gentle farmsteads and small college towns. Rita’s New England was one of cotton mills and shoe shops and noisy tenements. Frost spoke his English with a soft and fluid flavor, Rita spoke her French with the nasality imposed by Québec winters and a stridency inflicted by crowded households.
But a fence – freshly painted a flavor of yellow and white not unlike the mixture of flour and buckwheat – was what sold Rita on the new house. The bungalow had several other features, but that fence surrounding the back yard was the crowning touch. Rita liked its powers of definition and gentility; it appealed to her sense of order and clean lines. Once seen, the fence became the deciding factor: Rita Poirier and her husband Emile would have 38 Adele Court as their new address, the address that would probably carry them to old age and to their graves.
The Poiriers were already in their advanced forties. They had had no children; they had saved enough money to finally leave the tidy tenement on River Street that had been the first address of their married life. Now was the time for Rita to fulfill her dream.
Two of her cousins had preceded her to the new development composed of small homes on a series of streets a few miles up the hill in the best parish in town: Sainte-Thérèse. A French parish, with French-speaking priests and French-speaking nuns and French-speaking people filling the pews at every Mass on Sunday.
She had Emile drive her around the new neighborhood. There was Bonneau’s Supermarket; there was the parish credit union with the sign in English and in French, there was Connie’s Coiffure, Marchand the cobbler, Chez Pinard, the ice cream shop – all within walking distance. She had spotted a branch of the main post office and had Emile go inside and see if any of the clerks spoke French. He had reported that all of them did, at least the ones who were on duty. Un paradis! she declared.
Thus, the Poiriers found themselves in early April of 1956 in the office of Marcotte Realty signing all sorts of papers to make the new house theirs. For Rita, it was the happiest moment of her life. She said so, then regretted it and corrected the proclamation to include the day of her wedding as the happiest. But, this was clearly the second.
Everything seemed new, although the bungalow had had a previous owner, who had been careful and respectful of the property. New paint – a soft shade of gray – covered the clapboards, and a discrete pink outlined the windows. Rita knew that combination: gray and pink were very modern. The seventy-five-by-hundred lot was tiny by some standards, but Rita thought it was grand. She would have preferred a breezeway connecting the house and the garage; a sort of sun room, perhaps, but that could come later. Emile was most pleased with the garage: finally he had a fitting shelter for his Studebaker.
There was a full cellar and since the house was built on a slope, the cellar had larger than normal windows and a full door. One did not climb out of the cellar, one walked out onto a back yard. This was covered with paving stones and it boasted clothes lines stretched between sturdy poles imbedded into the ground. Rita had nearly cried upon this sight. No more having to hang the laundry on a rickety contraption leaning out of a third floor porch.
The minimal landscaping would have disheartened other folks, but when one had spent so many years in a tenement building with a view of other tenements, the still-young weeping willow in the back yard and a struggling rose bush near the front made the house palatial. Emile said he knew someone who would sell him a used lawn mower; Rita said her cousin would help her map out a vegetable garden.
The address did pose a bit of a problem at first. Rita did not understand why it was 38 Adele Court instead of 38 Adele Street. The French in her wanted the word pronounced as court, meaning short. Emile explained it was a new, fancy way of making the place sound more important. And, the streets not being at right angles and meandering about at first contradicted Rita’s preference for order, but she found herself eventually charmed by the ambiguity.
The fence, however, was the pièce de résistance, and on the morning of the first day, she walked outside in her housecoat to caress it. Examining the yards and the bungalows that surrounded her on three sides, Rita Poirier talked to the fence. “Give me good neighbors,” she whispered.
On the afternoon of the third day, she heard voices outside and, for a moment, Rita thought she had returned to her boisterous tenement. She found the voices unsettling, not merely for being unexpected and unexplained, but as a reminder that her dream was unavoidably a shared one. Rita’s thoughts found immediate refuge, however, in the fence and she reasoned that it would protect her – from what, she was unsure, and because of that she stepped outside.
Emerging from her cellar onto the little terrace washed by the Spring sun, Rita identified the voices as male and female, both speaking French, which pleased and comforted her. She followed the sounds to their speakers and watched and listened. An older woman, slightly bent over and wearing a thick oversized sweater, was giving orders to a man who appeared to be removing some kind of structure, a lattice frame, from where it had been attached to the rear of a garage. Rita soon understood that the woman was telling the workman to take it all down and to haul it away. He was explaining that he would have to charge extra, that she had hired him to clean out the garage, not to cart away debris. The old woman swept her hands open in resignation and her gaze wandered and fell where Rita was standing. The two women sent each other a wave of the hand.
The next day, the two neighbors found the opportunity to introduce themselves. Rita learned that Louise Bessette was recently widowed. With warm weather on the way Madame Bessette had decided to empty the garage of her husband’s possessions – mostly tools.
“The arbor has to go also, I decided,” she told Rita. “My husband grew tomatoes and beans and sunflowers. I know nothing of such things and, besides, I am too old.”
“I wish I had known him. I could have used his suggestions for the garden I hope to have,” replied Rita.
Madame Bessette thought for a moment. “There are seeds and plantings in the cellar, I am certain. I will give them to you.”
As surely as the warming days of April bring life to the New Enland soil, the haphazard meeting of the two neighbor ladies by the fence they shared, brought life, gradually and steadily, to a friendship filled with exchanges of baked goods, advice on how to treat maladies and gossip.
Madame Bessette had lived in her bungalow for eight years, and she had seen, she would eagerly tell you, all sorts of neighbors. She never elaborated on her set of criteria, but she soon announced to Rita that she was a welcomed addition to the neighborhood and that she would be honored to introduce her to their other neighbor, a young mother by the name of Estelle Dupuis who had two little girls attending Sainte-Thérèse School.
On Sunday, the dream was made perfect by the mere act of walking to and from church. Reveling in the warmth of the clan, the Poiriers sent a bonjour here and a bonjour there and nodded to co-parishioners who were just like them and heading to and from houses that were just like theirs. Even Emile had to acknowledge the comfort and rewards of the day as he sat down for the Sunday boiled dinner after which he went to the garage to polish his Studebaker and Rita went to tend to her flower beds.
By the time Rita’s irises had poked out of the soil at the base of the weeping willow, the neighbor ladies, now three in number, met regularly at the fence which intersected their properties and linked their friendship. This became Rita’s world, bits and pieces of which would be shared every night with Emile at the supper table. Although the three friends had established a schedule of for their daily tête-â-tête – early afternoons before the Dupuis girls came home from school – Rita found herself peering through her windows or up from the garden to see if either neighbor was about and ready to engage in conversation.
During all this time, never was there a mention of the fourth neighbor. Rita was intrigued and one day asked Madame Bessette about the unknown person next door.
“They are two sisters. Des Américaines,” she said conspiratorially. “They only speak in English. They work in a women’s clothing store downtown. I rarely see them.” The summation, terse and definitive, did not invite further discussion. Rita reported the conversation that night to Emile who merely shrugged.
By the time June came along, the flowers and vegetable plants had taken hold in the back yard of 38 Adele Court, and on one bright Sunday afternoon, Rita had all the cousins and their husbands and their children over for a family picnic – the first one she had ever hosted. On folding chairs borrowed from the neighbors, the clan members drank soda pop and gin tonics on the paved section of the yard shielded from the sun by sheets thrown over the clothes lines.
One afternoon while hanging clothes to dry, Rita heard a commotion from the usually quiet English-speaking neighbors. On the other side of the fence two workmen had just finished digging a wide deep hole in close proximity to the fence. She watched from between the sheets while the men removed a piece of burlap from around the roots of a large bush. Rita gasped as she understood their intent and stared in near terror as the bush – the size of two or three small trees – was slowly dropped into the hole. The workmen filled the space around the trunk with dirt and while one of them proceeded to hose down the area quite thoroughly, the other walked to the house to converse with one of the unknown sisters. Moments later, the neighbor walked resolutely to the corner of the yard and threw a smile of satisfaction at the new landscape.
Invasion, despoliation, abomination! Rita wanted to yell out, And she would have, had she known the words in English.
Later, back in her laundry room, she looked out and imagined the invading vegetation fully grown and blocking her access to the very corner of the fence that had been the rendezvous point with her neighbors, the good neighbors. The neighbors would soon find an obstacle separating them, one that would grow and grow and spread and spread until the three ladies could never see each other.
“What is it?” asked Madame Bessette the next day.
“I have never seen anything like it,” added Estelle.
“Emile thinks its sumac,” said Rita.
“Sumac can be poisonous,” responded Estelle.
“Mon Dieu,” exclaimed the women in unison.
They were conversing at their usual corner and already the encroaching specimen was sending its barbed branches through the pickets, making abundantly clear that it was taking over.
That night, Rita complained again to Emile, and he happened to mention that no plant can survive salt. He added that in time salty soil will kill all vegetation.
Rita could not sleep. Halfway through the night she walked into her kitchen, turned the lights on, opened a cabinet and her eyes scanned the pantry items, stopping on a round cardboard container. “Ah, Morton’s. Dieu merci!” Rita turned the container and gave a loving smile to the image of a girl with the umbrella. “Ah, you and I have much work to do,” she affirmed. “We have a fence to defend.”