My father always thought of release from prison as an opportunity to drink—that is, to resume doing the very thing that had landed him in prison in the first place. I need not say that lawn care was not an item on his agenda. We had the least kempt yard in the entire neighborhood. Every now and then, when I was quite young, a neighbor kid would come by and knock on the door and volunteer to cut, for a few bucks, the long waving grass, and whoever answered the door would usually agree to the deal. Things went on in this improvisatory fashion for a few years, but once my father realized that I was old enough to do the job—and wouldn’t have to be paid—he borrowed a lawnmower from a neighbor, showed me how to use it, and returned to the sofa on which he slept away most of his days. So cutting the grass became my job.
When I got married, I was blessed to find a real father for the first time in the person of my father-in-law, who remains to this day, some years after his death, the man I most admire and still wish to emulate. He was also a meticulous keeper of his lawn, a grower of roses, a planter and nurturer of trees. So when my wife and I bought our first house, it was obvious that I should follow his example in that matter as in so many others. Because my wife was interested in growing flowers, I focused my attention on the lawn. I bought a good lawnmower, I learned how to sharpen the blades, I acquired and used weed-trimmers and edgers. Life went on this way for several years, until I broke my hand in a basketball game and had to set aside yard work for a while.
My wife quickly (rather too quickly, I later realized) volunteered to find a lawn service to pinch-hit for me. I still remember the first time they showed up. It was like watching troops land on Omaha Beach, minus a well-entrenched German resistance. They pulled up to the curb in their pickup, with their equipment on the trailer behind it, and leaped out of the cab. One of the men hopped on a big mower with a platform behind it, like a motorized chariot, and drove down the driveway into the backyard at approximately 35mph, while a second set his chariot to work on the front yard, a third wielded an edger, and the driver grabbed his artillery piece, a.k.a. his gas-powered weed-trimmer. We had a largish yard, but in 20 minutes they were done. They rode their mowers back onto the trailer and sped off to the next location. Despite their military precision, my lawn now looked not like a battlefield but like one of the greens at Augusta National. The performance was awe-inspiring. Henceforth, if I were fortunate enough to be at home when they showed up, I would drop whatever I was doing to peek through the blinds at them.
After a few weeks, it was time for me to have the cast removed, but my wife and I agreed that I shouldn’t yet resume yard work: The vibration of the mower couldn’t be good for still-healing bones. And so began a kind of ceremonious pas de deux, because, as we later acknowledged, I didn’t want to tell my wife that I had no interest in resuming care of the lawn, and she was hesitant to tell me that she thought that Operation Neptune did a much better job than I did. Eventually the truth came out, and my years as lawn custodian came to a graceful end.
In 2013, when we moved to Waco, I found myself wondering whether I should resume lawn maintenance. But then one day soon after we occupied our new house we discovered that our lawn had been carefully mowed, trimmed, and edged. It had been done by a man named James Wilson, who had worked for the people we bought the house from, and he told us that that particular job was a freebie. We should consider it his housewarming gift to us, he continued, but if we wanted him to continue caring for our lawn he would be happy to do so. In short, he made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. James did a wonderful job on our yard for several years, and then retired and turned over the responsibilities to his equally competent son Jeremiah.
So things were moving along smoothly—until a week ago. My wife and I had been away on a visit to family in Chicago and Alabama, and we came back to discover that there had been a good bit of rain and our grass had grown quickly and was looking shabbily wild. This doesn’t often happen in central Texas, which sits in an odd place, climatologically speaking: We get a lot more rain than arid West Texas, but considerably less rain than swampy, humid East Texas. As a result, it’s hard to know what to do with your lawn, which never dies but rarely looks especially good. That decision is made still harder by the fact that the city of Waco doesn’t want us to use too much water and thus charges hefty fees for that resource. As a result, the lavish irrigation of lawns is only for those who are (a) rather wealthy and (b) disinclined to care about the long-term health of our local environment.
This ambiguous lawn situation concerned me sufficiently that a while back I called in a landscaper to talk with him about tearing up the grass and replacing it with a combination of gravel and wildflowers. “Ah,” he said, “xeriscaping is very interesting. It’s work we like to do.” I was somewhat discomfited by his easy use of a word unknown to me; plus, he was young and good-looking and wore some well-used and extremely cool work-boots of a kind I had never seen before. I decided my wife didn’t need to meet him.
Anyway, xeriscaping, while still an option, is quite expensive and I have hesitated to make the investment—which is why when we returned from vacation we found ourselves with a big messy yard. We texted Jeremiah only to discover that his wife was having a baby and he would be out of commission for a little while.
A couple of years ago, when I was at Home Depot, on a whim I bought a push mower—no electricity, no gas, simply a reel of blades, attached to a frame and handle, that you turn by pushing. Just in case, I told myself. “Case” had arrived. The long grass was driving me nuts. So I dragged the mower out, inspected it, fixed it at the proper height, and set to work.
The first thing I discovered is that if you get out in your yard with a push mower, everyone who passes wants to talk with you about it. One of my neighbors who was out for a run stopped to tell me that her husband had just seen me with the push mower and exclaimed, “I need one of those.” She said that she pointed out that he not only had a mower, but also, in fact, a new mower. He had replied that just as she needs not just one top but tops for different occasions, so he too needs mowers for different occasions. The logic seemed flawless to me, but she just rolled her eyes and resumed her run.
The push mower works pretty well but doesn’t give you the neat cut that a mechanical mower does: The blades just don’t move fast enough to catch every blade of grass. I complained to my wife about the annoyance of seeing sprigs leap up just after the mower has passed over them, as though rejoicing in their survival. “You could bend over and the pull them up,” she said. “Good for your abs.” This comment did not seem to require a response.
So my lawn, which I have now finished mowing, doesn’t look nearly as good as it does when Jeremiah mows it. Nevertheless, I feel extraordinarily accomplished. I have gotten some good exercise and, by using a device driven not by gas or electricity but plain old muscle power, have avoided inflicting damage to the environment. My neighbors even had a quiet morning, because a push mower doesn’t make much noise. It’s been a great experience. I feel that this is pretty close to the pursuit of handmind that I talked about in last year’s post on hedge-trimming. I told my wife that I was thinking about doing this all of the time.
“Really?” she asked.
“Yeah. I’ll need to buy an edger and a weed-trimmer, but otherwise I’m ready to go.”
“Not a leaf-blower, I hope?”
“Lord no. Never in this life or the next.”
“Well, that’s good.” Pause. “Of course, there’s Jeremiah to be thought of.”
“Well, you know, you’d be taking work away from him.”
“Oh. I guess that’s true.”
“And his wife just had her baby.”
“So maybe … ”
“Yes. He’ll be back at work next week. Let’s leave things as they are.”
“I think that would be best,” she replied, earnestly.