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She was the closest I had to a sister. Our families kept the keys to the other family’s house, shot off fireworks, traded watching and/or driving kids as needed, shared Christmas Eve dinners, watched football games, and had nights filled with Nerf Wars (the kids) and card games (the adults). We lived just across the street from one another—our lives were so interwoven that we all knew we had a second set of parents looking out for us—even when we’d prefer we didn’t.

Our brothers were the same age so as soon as her family moved to town, the boys started shooting hoops together, playing backyard baseball, and, in general, terrorizing the kid-free neighbors with the perfect lawns who didn’t appreciate all the balls and Frisbees that flew across property lines.

She was younger than I was by four years but I never really minded playing with her. I remember our post-swim stops at Mahula’s, especially the time she got the cotton candy stuck in her still-wet hair. Wherever our brothers played sports—football, basketball, and baseball—we went along, especially looking forward to the post-game ice creams and other treats. Eventually we found our own sports—she, softball, and me, track—so we didn’t always have to trail around in their always moving footsteps.

When I left for college, the year after our brothers left, I lost track of the near-daily interactions but not of the long distance news and the get-togethers that still happened when I came home on breaks. She grew up, too, leaving for college the year I left home for good to find my way in the adult world. I always thought I would see her again.

I had hoped to make it back for the weekend before the usual Christmas Eve celebration since I would only need that one day off to go home for four days. My boss denied my request, saying I hadn’t been at the company long enough. Instead I watched my co-workers get drunk while they listened to Madonna. I wasn’t in Kansas—OK, Nebraska—any longer, was I?

My father’s phone call woke me the following Saturday. Jenne was dead, killed in a car accident while home from college on Christmas Break.

I didn’t ask to take New Year’s Eve off—I told work I had experienced a death in what was pretty much my family. I wasn’t going to sit at work, watching co-workers get drunk while a father and mother and brother buried our Jenne. I took off in my hardly road-worthy ’62 Rambler, daring the bitter cold to stop me—which it did not. While home, the voluminous trunk served as a stand-in freezer for the outpouring of food a grieving community kept delivering.

At all the gatherings at the home of the heartbroken family, I kept expecting her to walk in and say, “What are you all doing here? I’m not dead.”

But, of course, she was and still is these thirty years later. We’re left to wonder who she would have grown up to be and what kind of a middle-aged woman she would be right now. Over the years I think of her at strange times. When I’m typing—because she was good at typing and I am not. When I started having grownup friends who were born the same year she was. When I see—now rare, of course—a Mustang of the type she drove—the one with the wheel that was knocked away from the force. When a kid with wet hair is eating cotton candy.

After some time had passed, her mom wanted me to take some of her fairly unworn shoes. I did, but I couldn’t really bring myself to wear them after all. I finally realized: I couldn’t fill her shoes. No one could.

Dearest Jenne—sometimes I still can’t believe that’s all you got of life and all we got of you. So much has changed in this world since you left us, but I will never stop remembering what it meant to have you as my little sister from across the street.

Custer County (NE) Settlers cutting fence.

I do believe that good fences make good neighbors, but I don’t think privacy fences make us into good neighbors, at least not in older neighborhoods where we aren’t likely to run into one another as people sometimes do in streets ending in cul-de-sacs. Here, shorter fences make good neighbors because then we can talk to our neighbors over those fences as we are living our lives in our own back yards. Obviously I have been blessed with good neighbors or I might understand the need for privacy fences more . . .

When I moved from Nebraska to Denver, I couldn’t believe that all the yards had fences. Growing up in my neighborhood in the 70s meant going from yard to yard and sometimes spilling into more than one yard while playing “Kick the Can,” “Tag,” and “Dodge Ball”—all games that work better when you don’t have to watch for fences when you are on the run. My brother and his friends always had some sort of game going involving a ball—ironic that the two best yards for those games grew next to the yards with the grumpiest, older neighbors who did not think boys tromping through their yards improved their manicured lawns—yet even those neighbors didn’t add fences.

Our 1940s house sports three different kinds of fences. No, this is no covenant-controlled neighborhood. All I care is that my dogs stay confined in my yard—although with such young, athletic dogs we have been thinking about putting in higher fencing, albeit made from some sort of wire—an anti-privacy fence, so to speak.

However, our neighbors on the corner have decided to spend their tax return this year on a new five-foot privacy fence. That means we’re about to add another kind of fencing to our yard. Since people, including high school kids on their way to and from school, who walk by their property can and sometimes do stick their hands in their current chain-link fence either to pet and/or taunt their dogs, I can understand why they want to protect their dogs—and themselves. Plus, if people do that to their dogs, won’t their children benefit from being less visible?

True, but how will the eldest Oscar explain to me over the fence why some bees do not die after stinging you? If the kids had been confined by a taller fence, could he have had that discussion with us about the Hank the Cowdog book series when we first introduced our old dog to him as the head of our ranch security?

(c) 1990 Elda Mae Lange

Yesterday workers removed all the fencing surrounding the house, including the fence on our side. I’m glad our neighbors told us the plan, but the workers never even knocked on our door before they were inside our yard removing that good fence that had confined our dogs and kids, grown our grapes, and been the meeting place between us and our former and current neighbors. By now, I am just hoping and praying that our mutual grapevine (started decades ago on their side of the fence) will survive the change—at least it is only pruned for now.

After several long hours trying to amuse dogs that are used to going into the yard at will, I felt relief when my husband Sherman put up temporary fencing to help us survive until our yard is once again confined. Good thing since our 85-degree weather has given way to snow and no workers have shown to continue their work connecting the lonely posts stuck in the ground. For one more day, I have the illusion of having more wide open spaces than I’ve known for decades.

Change is another “C” word—it’s just going to take me awhile to accept that I have to get used to more confinement, whether I like it or not.

One last thought, though. Isn’t it ironic that while we wall out people in our own neighborhoods, every day more people around the whole world have access to so much of what used to be our private business? Now that’s confinement . . .

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