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By Tara Cavanaugh
Tucked away in the east side of Lansing is a lush, bountiful garden. Heirloom flowers crowd the front yard, and nearly any vegetable or herb you could imagine – from squash to lettuce to catnip to dill – competes for space in the back. Somewhere in all that growth, the garden has allowed space for a small strip of grass and two small homes.
Welcome to the Neighbor Wives’ garden.
The Neighbor Wives are Roxanne Frith and Tari Muniz. They moved into their separate homes with separate yards in late 2001. Ten years later, their friendship has bloomed and their side-by-side yards have merged into one big, sprawling garden that now serves as a gathering space for the local lesbian community.
A community’s roots
The Neighbor Wives’ garden has become a center for birthday celebrations, pre-and-post Michigan Pride gatherings, erotic poetry readings and – of course – for sharing fresh food.
Every year, in late summer and fall, the women enjoy what they call the “thrusting season.” They split their flowers and give them away, so that people can plant them in their own yards. They also encourage people to come and pick the plethora of produce, making the garden a community hotspot.
“It is not uncommon, truly, to come home and find someone sitting in the garden because they needed to just have a place to come sit for a minute,” Frith says.
What makes the garden admired by so many?
“It’s not grown in an extremely planned out fashion,” says Laurie Hollinger, who has known the wives for two years. “There aren’t borders. Things are allowed to grow as they do.”
“We don’t test the soil for pH balance and shit like that,” Muniz says. “Put it in the ground, you either make it or you don’t. It is something that feels very natural and comfortable. It’s always been trial and error throughout the years.”
Kat Petersen is a former Lansing Community College photography student of Frith’s, and she often visits Frith for coffee. Petersen loves that “there’s always something growing, there’s always color. Even in the winter there’s purple cabbage sticking out of the snow.”
Petersen especially loves the angel the Neighbor Wives have formed out of morning glories. “They plant them all along Tari’s garage, and they put a huge network of string and twine to the roof,” she says. “It looks like this huge angel when they’re in bloom. The angel also has a vagina with a lavender clit.”
The blossoming of the ‘Neighbor Wives’
It started simply enough. In the spring of 2002, both Muniz and Frith were working on planting flowers in their front yards, and they found themselves sharing a valuable resource: the pent-up energy of a teenage boy under parent-imposed house arrest. “His job was to dig up the yard,” Muniz says about her son Kevin, “and while he was at it, dig up Roxanne’s.
“As soon as we started chatting, it was amazing – We realized our paths had been crisscrossing for over 30 years. We had people in common and places in common and we just always kind of missed each other until we ended up living side by side,” Muniz says.
Muniz, a longtime activist for the LGBT community who now works for the state’s Office of Services to the Aging, was the next tenant immediately after Frith in an East Lansing apartment thirty years ago. The women discovered they both spoke Spanish: Muniz grew up speaking it; Frith taught Spanish and had also studied in Chile.
And they knew dozens of the same friends and acquaintances: “We had an extensive community in common, we just never knew each other,” Frith says.
While they were getting to know one another that spring, the front yards, separated not by fence or asphalt but an imaginary property line, decided to merge together. “It wasn’t our decision, it just morphed,” Frith says. “It just evolved and grew.”
The joining of the backyards was a more deliberate decision.
“We had a vision,” Muniz says. “My backyard was really just crap anyway. Full of weeds. It wasn’t a comfortable place to hang out, it wasn’t being used. And we wanted to grow some food.” So they got rid of the chain link fence between the yards, and hired someone to till up Muniz’s neglected grass.
“It wasn’t hard at all,” Muniz says. “It made perfect sense.”
Muniz likes to “do the big shovel-y, turn-the-dirt-over kind of things,” and Frith likes to weed. They don’t get territorial, and they don’t fight about who’s done more work. “We spend whole days out there not even necessarily talking,” Muniz says, “just doing the things that we both do to contribute to it.
“We always make sure we have really good music blasting out of the windows and it just… works,” she added, sounding a tad bewildered.
The first time that they realized they were neighbor wives was during a monthly potluck for the lesbian community in Lansing called First Friday, which has taken place for more than 30 years. “Since both of our houses were so small, we decided to do it together,” Muniz says. “People just went back and forth between the two houses and it worked really well.”
A friend started calling them “Neighbor Wives,” and it just stuck, Frith says.
A perennial friendship
Friends of the Neighbor Wives say there’s more to the garden than just plants – there’s a sense of peace emanating from all that green, and it’s as harmonious and as natural as Frith’s and Muniz’s friendship.
“They share that space with such love and respect, it just really gives such a good vibe to the garden, to the space itself,” Hollinger says. “It’s really quite magical, and I’d say quite blessed.”
Frith likens her friendship with Muniz to the connection shared by sisters. But their friends sense more.
“There’s a connectedness that’s beyond words,” Petersen says about the Neighbor Wives. “For as platonic as a relationship could possibly be, they are lovers in the emotional and intellectual sense of the word.”
Both Muniz and Frith are quick to point out that they’re not actual lovers, nor have they ever been. Frith even crafted a tagline that says it all: “We share kitties but not pussy.”
When asked if there are ever any arguments in the decade-long friendship, Muniz falls silent, searching her mind for a long minute: “No,” she says, thoughtfully. “We don’t argue. There are things about us individually that drive the other one crazy, which is why we would not be lovers, ever. But no – we’ve never had a fight, we’ve never really disagreed on things, it’s just been very natural.
“It’s probably the first friendship that I’ve had where I’ve felt completely loved and accepted for who I am.”
“Them being there and being neighbors wasn’t coincidence, you know,” Peterson says. “I absolutely believe that they’ve known each other in many lives.”