Today, I Am Mowing the Lawn (A Cautionary Tale)

Wednesday: soft blue skies, soft spring breezes, and I have this lovely, unexpected free span, mid-week–a haven of time created by distilling, of necessity, my weekly work schedule into three very long days. There are exactly 27 urgent things on my at-home to-do list, but right now, I am at the dining room table enjoying a glass of water and a surreptitious Reese’s cup–an energy booster, I tell myself righteously.

I need my energy: I am mowing the lawn.

I have finished the front yard–not so heavy a chore; I gave it a first mow last week and battled down the winter-high, meadowy grasses. I did, however, forget to do the little strip between the retaining wall and the street, and, this morning, it was a skinny, long, wild field of tall dandelions. I plowed them down, the bold yellow-topped ones and the ones already gone to fluffy, ball-shaped seed pods. As I mowed, the seeds flew up, borne on gossamer wing-blades, and they dispersed in all directions.  I hoped the neighbors weren’t watching me and the breeze sow the surrounding yards with dandelions. I hoped they weren’t cursing my name.

Yes, today I am mowing the lawn, and I am thinking that adage is true: I should remember to be careful what I wish for.

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I grew up with four brothers, and my father would not let me mow the lawn. Yard-work was for boys. My brother Dennis was the designated hedge trimmer; he was meticulous and tidy and always pulled the rake out and scraped up the cuttings, putting them, when we were very young, into the burn pile, then bundling them into thick garbage bags when environmental thoughtfulness began to dawn. Michael and John were designated the resident lawn mowers, and I envied them.

“Can’t I mow the lawn?” I would wheedle, and my father would harrumph.

“Not today,” he’d mutter, or, “Let me think about it.”

In Dad-speak, that meant “NO.” I would sigh.

Behind him, I could see my mother, a small, satisfied smirk on her face. She was brandishing the heavy old iron in one hand. With her sneakered right foot, she pushed a bushel basket of rumpled shirts toward me.

I ironed the minimum number of items possible with the worst grace I could muster, and I longed to be allowed to go outside and mow.

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I’m not sure why I couldn’t touch the mower. It wasn’t that my father did not allow me to operate big scary machines. When I was a teenager and longing to drive, my mother worked nights at a pharmacy. As she left the house with my father, just before five, she would say to him, “Be sure to take your daughter out driving.”

“YES!” I would echo, and Dad, Mom’s chauffeur, would usher her out the door, assuring her he’d see I got some driving time in. And when he came back, he’d toss me the keys and pick up the afternoon paper.

“Go pick up Liza [or Sandee or Debi , or Patty or Terri],” he’d say, “and drive around. No beer. And have the car back by 8:30 so I can pick your mother up.”

“Doesn’t the other driver have to be 18 when you’re on a permit?” my younger brother Sean would ask suspiciously.

“That,” my father would retort, “is a technicality.” And we were not the kind of family who let technicalities rule us.

And as I left the house, he’d call out a reminder: “Don’t drive by the drugstore!”

Despite my surreptitious drives around the Point–the beautiful lakefront park where young people gathered on soft summer nights–despite the ineffable coolness of my left arm hanging out the open driver’s side window with a lit Virginia Slims cigarette dangling from my fingers, I did not earn my official driver’s license until I was 21 and desperate to drive myself to work.

And still, by then, I hadn’t really mowed a lawn.

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Then came a series of upstairs apartments with no lawn-mowing involved or available, until, in my late twenties, I married Mark.

At the time, Mark and Matthew lived on a sprawling half-acre lot. We got married in the winter, but I immediately started my campaign.

“Will you teach me to mow the lawn this spring?” I begged my new husband. I really, really wanted to mow.

“Yes, Dad,” said Matthew, who really, really did NOT, “you really should teach Pammie to mow!”

Mark demurred, a little; he hemmed a little and hawed a little (but not, now I think back on it, very much at all). And that spring, I learned to fill the mower’s gas tank, to prime the pump and pull the draw-cord just so to set the little mower chugging. And then, off I went, walking the back forty, creating trim lawns out of winter-grown wildness.

And I was happy.

At first, Mark would grumble after Matt or I mowed.

“You PEOPLE,” he’d mutter, “can’t walk a straight line.” And he’d drag the mower back out and whack down  high little tufts of grass left behind in my backyard ramblings.  Hah, I thought: I’ll show you, and the next time I was totally meticulous. The yard looked like a manicured ball-field.

“Better,” Mark acknowledged. “You’re getting the hang of it.”

He muttered about “you people” in conjunction with trim techniques, too, and I began to concentrate on perfect edgings.

I got pretty good at mowing, I think. In fact, one night after work, I was pushing the little mower up and down that half acre in the evening sun, and Mark was sitting out on the  stoop, with a beer and the newspaper. When I drew close to the house, he waved me over. I shut down the mower.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“I just want to tell you,” he said, “that you’re getting pretty good at this. I’m really happy with the way the yard looks these days.”

“Hey, THANKS,” I said, and I went back to my mowing, a warm little glow of satisfaction and appreciation lightening my step. Wasn’t it nice of Mark to take a break from drinking his beer and reading the evening news to tell me—I was halfway to the edge of the yard when I stopped and  thought, HEY. Wait a minute!

But by then, of course, it was too late. By then, I was a lawn-mowing woman.

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Mowing, of course, is a task shared among us. We ALL mow the lawn these days, and if I have a little more time and a lot fewer grass and pollen-type allergies, well, that’s okay. I really don’t mind, usually, getting out for a nice strenuous push behind the mower.  These days our equipment is  a little more sophisticated, and there’s a kind of power-assist lever that makes the pushing much easier. And Mark runs out with the edge trimmer and neatens up all the rock-edged areas. It’s a synchronized sharing of the outdoor chores.

And it’s such a satisfying feeling–to walk behind that mower for 40 minutes, to transform the yard from a mess and a jungle into a neat and trim inviting space. There’s a message shared by a well-mowed yard–a message that someone LIVES here, that someone CARES here. After all these years, I still get that warm swell of satisfaction when the grass is cut and the world seems orderly. I want to sit outside, rest my feet, and feast my weary eyes.

So, the other night, having tamed the front yard into fresh-spring submission, I thought, “We should sit on the front steps, sip brewskis, and enjoy.” And I grabbed two Molson Canadians from the fridge, popped off their caps, and went searching for my husband.

When I finally found him, the irony did not escape me. He was in the basement, ironing a shirt.