Seven Decades and One Wall Apart: Finding Friendship on Either Side of a Bouldin Creek Duplex

Two women at different stages of life keep company during a pandemic

by Zeke Barbaro / Getty Images

I'm usually on the phone when the knock comes at my door. Sometimes I'm on a Zoom call. Sometimes I'm halfway through an email. Invariably, I'm busy. "She knows," I think to myself. "How does she know?"

The knock comes every day, quick and sharp. It will continue until it's tended to, like a fire alarm. It's the knock of my next-door neighbor, Mae. Her eyes are wide when I open the door. "Honey," she says. "Is this package yours?" Her knock is faster than the ding of my Amazon account. Jeff Bezos' algorithms can't match her 91-year-old feet.

She holds the brown box with one hand and waves away the delivery man with the other. "I just wanted to make sure you got it, honey," she smiles. "Be careful, it's heavy."

Mae lives alone, without a cell phone or internet. She had a husband but he died. The TV keeps her company during the day, but she would rather be out doing things, working in the yard or going to church. In July's sweltering heat, Mae mostly watches the world from her window.

She sees everything. Mae alerts me to deliveries from the mailman, the absence of deliveries from the mailman, changes in the mosquitoes, the traffic, the sun, or the rain. She tracks the movements and diet of a pernicious neighborhood squirrel. "He was in your birdfeeder, honey." She glares and shakes a fist. Then she points at my potted geraniums, torn up and askew. "He was digging in there, too. He buried a walnut! I saw it." I listen and pat her hand.

Over the last year, it's hard to imagine anyone I've spent more time with than my neighbor. I moved back to Austin at the height of the city's real estate mania. When I found a listing for a 1930s duplex in Bouldin Creek – without central air conditioning or a dishwasher, but with a charming front porch – I jumped at it. I would rent one side, a longtime Austinite lived in the other. "Please let me have it," I begged the landlord. "I'll do anything." The landlord agreed, with only one request: Be kind to Mamma Mae. Keep an eye on her if you can.

Mae and I spent the fall together on the porch, sitting quietly in the cool breeze. We endured Austin's ice storm together in the winter; I cooked spaghetti and she kept an eye on falling icicles. In the spring, we watched the birds rebuild their nests.

Seated in our chairs on the porch, day after day, our lives felt parallel: Each woman tied to this city, each struggling to define her place within it. One at the start of her adult life, the other near the end. For months, life on either side of the duplex looked the same. At 91, my neighbor didn't have much to do. At 25, neither did I. I worked. I wrote. I answered emails. I cooked dinner. I washed the dishes. I mopped the floor. I read a book. I called my mom. We both went to sleep alone, night after night.

As the weeks passed and the temperature rose, I began to feel a creeping resentment: How long would we be stuck here? Was I looking not at a neighbor but at a reflection of myself, my own inevitable fate? Would I be resigned to this porch, to this chair, to this quiet solitude – forever?

The summer sun brought an explosion of activity: Music thrummed on South Congress, cold Shiners sweated in coolers at Zilker Park, droves of kayaks covered the lake. Austin seemed to come alive overnight. Everyone had a party to go to. Everyone had plans.

I had Mae. And the squirrel.

It suddenly felt like an obligation to make chitchat under the birdfeeder. I didn't want to sit on the porch anymore, surrounded by the unspoken contemplation of death. I wanted to chase after life; race behind the twentysomethings on their way to Barton Springs, throw myself into the water and emerge sunburnt and surrounded by friends. I wanted to remember the sweet privileges of youth, the inattention to responsibility and commitment. I wanted freedom. But where to get it?

I decided to take action. I booked a trip to reunite with old friends and co-workers, to remember who I was before I moved into this small house on a quiet street. I packed a backpack and boarded a flight to Manhattan. I slept on couches and lifted wine glasses (many wine glasses) to toast the world's reopening. But with each reunion, I was struck not by the thrill of freedom, but by the beauty of long friendships: the kindness of people who opened their doors and tossed my dirty laundry into the washer without a blink. These relationships were built over days and weeks and years of dinners, long walks, and quick hugs – not spontaneous trips. They were built through commitment.

I imagined traveling through big cities and firing off emails in coffee shops would make me feel like my old self again: a woman with places to be and things to do. But free to roam, with nothing to tie me down but a backpack, I felt unmoored. Where should I go? What should I see? The answer, it seemed: everything.

After two weeks, the only place I wanted to go was home.

As my Uber pulled up to our house, I saw Mae peer through the window. It was dark out, but her light was on. I felt a moment of clarity: The love of a neighbor is a precious thing. Relationships aren't an obligation, they're a choice. We should all be grateful for the people who've held us close this year, kept a watchful eye on our mailboxes, and checked in day after day. It's the commitment – to a person, a front porch, or a city – that makes a house a home.

Soon, there was a knock at my door. "Hi, honey," she said. "I'm so glad you're back."

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