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In an icy driveway, these neighbors find warmth and comfort as a merciless pandemic rages around them

‘We don’t want this connection to go away’

Nancy Novelline Clayburgh and her neighbors gathered under the heat of lamps around a fire pit in her driveway.
Nancy Novelline Clayburgh and her neighbors gathered under the heat of lamps around a fire pit in her driveway.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — An icy darkness tightens its grip — the late-afternoon sun just a wintry memory now — as we sit huddled under tall, snow-crusted pine trees and a single, skinny birch.

It is freezing. But there is heat here. And light.

The heat comes from metallic propane heat lamps that have melted the snow in Nancy Novelline Clayburgh’s slick driveway.

The light comes from the lively conversation among these friends and neighbors, wearing down jackets and colorful scarves, who have fashioned something strong and enduring and comforting.

It’s a sort of COVID salon that has rescued a few precious commodities from this deadly pandemic’s merciless grip: Friendship. Fellowship. A determination that disease cannot destroy the sturdy bonds that bind us.

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“It’s been a lifesaver for me,” said Ernie Greenslade, who lives nearby and has become a driveway regular.

“I’m an extroverted person and I am spending all of my time in the house in my office working on Zoom calls,” Greenslade told me the other day, her breath visible in the air.

“And to be able to have this opportunity to get together to talk face-to-face with my friends. I mean, it’s a lifesaver.”

A lifesaver. That’s precisely the way Nancy Clayburgh describes it.

Nancy Clayburgh wrapped herself in a blanket to keep warm as she hosted friends and neighbors in her driveway.
Nancy Clayburgh wrapped herself in a blanket to keep warm as she hosted friends and neighbors in her driveway.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

This handsome home with its three-car garage is where she and her husband, Dr. James Clayburgh, a cardiologist at Portsmouth Regional Hospital, built their family and future.

When her husband, who battled Parkinson’s disease, died on May 1 at age 69, Nancy — this city’s former assistant mayor who now serves on the city’s school board — discovered the real meaning of friendship and community support, immutable relationships.

“People would call me to express their sympathy and I would say, ‘Why don’t you come over and visit me? We can sit in the driveway,’ ” Nancy Clayburgh recalled. “They loved it because it gave them something to do. People couldn’t go out. They couldn’t go anywhere.

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“So people started to visit me. They visited me all summer long.”

Neighbors Pam Claremont (left) and Janet Parkinson warmed their hands by a heat lamp in Nancy Clayburgh's driveway.
Neighbors Pam Claremont (left) and Janet Parkinson warmed their hands by a heat lamp in Nancy Clayburgh's driveway.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Neighbors came. Former neighbors came. Friends of her children — the kids who had played with her kids and then left for school and careers — returned for a sandwich and a drink in their familiar old neighborhood.

“One night, I had my priest over who I adore,’' Clayburgh told me. “And I made it fancy. I put candelabras on the table and we had a tablecloth. I didn’t use real dishes. I probably should have.”

I’m sure her priest didn’t mind. No one would. How could you?

There are plenty of chairs. There are tables, covered in colorful cloths, laden with snacks and drinks. Cokes and beers. A crockpot of chili doled out into paper bowls.

And there is something warmer than comfort food. Friends offering support and love.

“People are careful and understand that this really has to be taken seriously,” said John Bohenko, 65, a neighbor who retired a year ago after serving 23 years as the Portsmouth city manager. “Basically, we’re in our own little bubble and this allows us to get out in the fresh air.”

Stories are swapped. Big issues of the day are dissected. Neighborhood news is exchanged about who got vaccinated when and where.

“We touch base on how people are feeling and about how things are progressing,” said Betsy Young, 67, who lives diagonally across the street in the house where she arrived when pregnant with her now 30-year-old son.

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“Have you gotten your shot? Are you scheduled? Did you have a problem?”

As she surveys a group of about 10 outside her garage, Nancy Clayburgh remembers how it all began.

Her husband had died. The warmth of summer gave way to the brisk winds of autumn. And then, suddenly, another winter arrived in New England. She ordered three heat lamps for $150 each from Home Depot. She bought an outdoor fire pit online.

She resolved herself that the place that she made her home would be her home still.

Neighbors, family, and friends kept the cold at bay in Nancy Clayburgh's driveway with a firepit and heat lamps.
Neighbors, family, and friends kept the cold at bay in Nancy Clayburgh's driveway with a firepit and heat lamps. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“I invited neighbors over for Christmas Eve in the driveway,” she said. “We had a grab. You know, a Yankee Swap. It was so much fun. We sang Christmas carols. I printed up a bunch of lyrics and some people were embarrassed. I said, ‘If you don’t want to sing, you don’t have to sing.’ And everybody stayed until 8 o’clock.”

And then everybody came back.

And kept coming back.

“I think people are social animals. We just want to be together,” Tom Clairmont, a 72-year-old primary care physician who lives nearby and was bundled up against the cold, told me. “We like to have contact with people. Isolation is not good. It leads to more depression.”

The group’s glue is Nancy Clayburgh.

She offers food. She tells a joke. She has a story to share about how she and her son applied for the same job. He got it. She didn’t.

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All of it is a blanket of warmth for people like Todd Bohannon, a 37-year-old mortgage underwriter whose fiancée grew up just two houses away.

“The act of sitting in a driveway physically is a little abnormal,” he told me not far from the heat lamp. “But the social interaction is something that feels normal. The catching up with each other about what’s been going on.”

There are weekly reports about who’s doing what to avoid the pandemic’s snare.

What about when it’s all over?

“We joke about that,” Bohannon said. “We say, ‘Hey, we’re still going to sit in Nancy’s driveway when COVID’s not a thing, right? Because now we’re all so connected to each other through this weekly meeting.

“We want COVID to go away. But we don’t want this connection to go away.”

And with that, Nancy Clayburgh is offering more food and drink.

And more community comfort in her icy driveway that has become a warm and welcoming community hearth.

A heat lamp provided warmth and a calm glow during a recent gathering in the driveway.
A heat lamp provided warmth and a calm glow during a recent gathering in the driveway.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.