Commentary

A.C. Snow remembers with fondness his longtime neighbor in Raleigh

August 24, 2013 

Poet Robert Frost in “Mending Wall” wrote that good fences make good neighbors.

I disagree. So did Frost, actually. It was his neighbor who insisted on the rock wall between them.

For years, there has been a rail fence, with an opening, between us and our next-door neighbors, the Smiths, but no wall of any kind.

We met the Smiths – Frank, Marie and daughter Betty – one afternoon when my wife and I were tramping over the wooded lot in the Brookhaven subdivision I had bought as a wedding gift to my wife.

Mrs. Smith came out and invited us in for a cup of afternoon tea.

The Smiths became more family than just neighbors. Daughter Betty became more like a sister than just the girl next door.

Frank, her father, was a Mr. Fix It who often came to my rescue on bungled chores as a homeowner. Marie was the hovering mother to us and our children.

For example, when I moved the swing’s seats to the top of the swing so that I could mow the grass, she called my wife to say, “Tell A.C. to put the seats down right now before they fall on the children’s heads.”

One summer I grew a little patch of okra in the far reaches of the backyard. Just before Christmas, as we were rushing out to a daughter’s piano recital, the phone rang. It was Marie, who asked, “Is A.C. going to decorate those dead okra stalks for Christmas?”

We didn’t consider that meddling. We thought of it as motherly love.

Betty was cut from the same piece of cloth. Caring, helpful and loving.

One afternoon when I got home from work, my neighbor was standing on top of her picnic table. Rushing over with concern, I asked, “What in the world are you doing up there?”

“Thank goodness you’re finally home,” she replied. “I was working in my flowers and saw this huge black snake crawling within a few feet of me. I’ve been up on this table seems like for hours!”

Betty, who never married, rose through the ranks at Wachovia Bank to become one of its first female vice-presidents.

In a quiet, inoffensive way, she was a pioneer in woman’s rights.

A friend of ours applying for a loan for a new car was told by two banks that her husband would have to apply for the loan.

Someone then sent her to “Betty’s bank” – as the Hayes-Barton bank she managed for decades was popularly called.

“You have a job. Of course you can have the loan,” she was told. “You don’t need your husband to get it.”

Betty passed the ultimate litmus test in good neighboring. Years ago, a bird deliberately planted a magnolia tree seed on the line between our houses.

In what seemed like a few months, the tree was a monster, endlessly, almost spitefully, shedding its waxy leaves on her driveway and mine. She endured this for years out of respect for my wife’s affection for the messy magnolia.

Incidentally, our friend Judge Sid Eagles, who shares my disrespect for magnolias, the South’s iconic tree, recently commented that the magnolia is the ideal gift for a man about to retire.

“It will keep him in good physical shape as well as out of the house and his wife’s way.”

Good neighbors can make a difference, positive or otherwise, in someone’s life. Actually, a cantankerous neighbor can make one’s life miserable. Betty and her parents were positives in ours, pearls of great price.

In his poem, Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.”

I don’t think he was referring only to a rock wall or rail fence, but more to an invisible wall that neighbors often erect between each other.

During 53 years of living side by side, no such wall existed between the Snows and the Smiths.

At Betty’s recent funeral, my eyes moistened over as the organist softly played Betty’s favorite song, “Moon River.”

I know that somewhere in the Great Beyond my huckleberry friend Betty Smith is “waitin’ ’round the bend.”

Meanwhile, she’s greatly missed here by those lucky enough to have been her friend or kin.

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