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.

************

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.

***********

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.

**************

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.

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My Life in Clan MacCaffeine

Fueeled by coffee 2

Thank goodness I do not have to work tomorrow; it it is 3 AM and I am nowhere near sleep.  It’s my own fault:  I made half a French press pot of coffee to fill my travel mug when I took James to his writers’ group in Westerville tonight, a 50 minute drive.  That was at 5 PM or so–a time when I usually start fading, so I thought I’d better fortify.

Then we got to the meeting site–which, it happens, is a Panera.  I ordered coffee and a pastry, and I pulled out my battered little IPad and typed, sipping lovely fresh-brewed dark roast at a  corner table. The writers, meanwhile, went off to talk writing.  When a friendly Panera guy walked by, I asked about their refill policy; he assured me, cheerfully, that as long as I was using my Panera-issued cup I could refill 800 times if I wanted.

Eyes gleaming–you gotta love a place with a policy like that–I took him at his word.

Clearly I am out of practice. Jazzed up, caffeinated, I trundle out of bed and head downstairs to put this wide-awake time to some sort of practical use.  Oh, I’ve come a long wimpy way since childhood, when two cups of coffee just before bed was commonplace.  I grew up in Clan MacCaffeine, and I have never fully left it.

************

The smell of coffee and the sound of coffee perking are among my earliest morning memories.  My mother, mostly a stay at home mom, got up early and started brewing coffee before the sun rose.  She would heat a prepared pot from the night before and drink it, companionably, with my father; then, while he got ready for work, she would brew another pot for his lunch box.  That coffee, liberally laced with milk and sugar, went into a huge red plaid thermos bottle.  Mom would usher my father out the door, handing him his metal lunch box and the thermos, sending him off with a kiss and a squeeze. Then she put another pot on the stove, brewed it to accompany her morning prayers.  She would sit with coffee and an ashtray and her prayer paperwork–books of prayers, an old missal, readings about saints, and lists of people to pray for.  She would smoke and sip coffee and spend some quiet morning time having a breakfast cuppa with the Maker.

If you had asked me in those days what big people had for breakfast, I probably would have answered, “Maxwell House and Lucky Strikes.”

********

My parents, early on, preferred Maxwell House or Chase & Sanborn; they bought their coffee in large metal cans, which they kept in a highish cupboard, above child-height.  They would liberally scoop the coffee into the percolator basket, add a dash of salt (I don’t know why, except that we were probably as addicted to salt as we were to caffeine), and sometimes crushed egg shell. (That, my father said, cut the grease. Greasy coffee? I shrugged and took him at his word.)

My mother brewed the coffee in a battered old stove top percolator, which saw use throughout the day.  To hear the coffee perking, just like the sound from that old TV commercial–Doppa doppa DOP dop!–was to be reassured that life was under control.  Whatever else this day might throw at me, I knew there was coffee, fresh hot coffee, brewing on the kitchen stove.

When I walked in, after school, coffee was perking.  There was always, of course, an after supper pot.  And every night, just before bed, my mother would brew a fresh pot to have ready for the morning–but, nightly, without fail, it smelled so good, that she and my father and whichever of the children had reached the Age of Coffee would grab thick white mugs and drink a cup.  Then another pot–a pot for the morning for real–would go on to brew, and then the family would go to bed.  No one ever seemed to have a problem sleeping.

Much later, in college psychology class, I read about caffeine being used to push hyperactive kids over the threshold of manic activity and into some sort of calmer state, and I thought of my parents, my brothers, and me, self-medicating with percolated Maxwell House.

**************

I started drinking coffee in earnest when I was thirteen and pudgy.  I wanted to lose weight; I had read that black coffee filled you up and added no calories.  It also gave me more energy, which helped me to exercise more.  I liked it.  The weight came off.  I started high school eighty pounds lighter than I had been in eighth grade.  I was, by then, also a confirmed black coffee drinker; I drink it that way to this very day.

Sometime in those heady years, the percolator got traded in for an electric drip coffee maker; Folgers hit the local market and became my parents’ go-to brand.

Through the seventies–through the days when I vied [amongst wicked competition] for the title of Party Queen, always a strong runner up, and determined to try, try again,–coffee was my lifeline, the brew that got me re-energized after three hours sleep. That phase, fortunately, did not last out my twenties, and then coffee became the fuel that fired long marathons of weekend paper grading and class prep.  I started making, for a while, a half-caff blend that Maxwell House marketed; I drank it all day long, and it seemed to me, in its diminished caffeination, sort of like a health food.

We drank coffee when the Knuckleheads got together once a month for rambling pinochle sessions lasting until the wee hours.  Birthday parties and family get-togethers revolved around the coffee maker, never allowed to cool or rest.  I bought a lot of eight dollar coffee makers and literally burned right through them–I remember, once, my landlord David running across to rescue me, sprinting out of my apartment gingerly tossing a flaming coffee maker from hand to hand.

Back to the drugstore, where a GE model was on sale, I went.

Somewhere in those days, a friend introduced me to the concept of fair trade coffee, and I read a little about the coffee business, and I became concerned and proactive.  I started buying only fairly traded beans, and in the process, discovered a whole new taste in coffee.  Dark roast–that was my brew; preferably Italian, but French was good too.  And no more buying coffee in a can.

The boyos bought me my first coffee grinder.  At night I would grind the beans and get the coffee ready–filtered water and all–for an early morning brew.  Mark, up first and not a coffee drinker himself, would shower and run downstairs to turn the coffee on and welcome me to the waking world with a lovely hot pot of fresh-brewed dark roast.

***********

Along the line, another revelation.  Our friend Sharon worked, at the height of the coffee shop craze, at an infamously funky little place in Buffalo, New York, and she came to speak coffee fluidly and intimately.  One year she visited to celebrate my birthday and brought me a French press.  After a lovely supper, she expertly ground the beans, put them in the press, swirled in boiling water with a wooden spoon.  I was dubious–would this be a beefed up version of that anathema, instant coffee?  Ignorant, I was about to be initiated.  Sharon let the stirred brew steep for three  minutes, then slowly, slowly, pushed down the sieve.

The smell was incredible.  She served me a steaming mug with a smiling flourish; we sipped, and I was hooked.  The brew tasted like smoke; the rich coffee flavor–ah, it was right there.  You can French press a pot, Sharon suggested, for a treat.  With a special nosh.  When you just need to pamper yourself.  And to this day, although Mark still turns the electric drip pot on every morning, I use the French press on snowy Sunday afternoons or when coffee-drinking company shares dessert.

***********

For a long time, my coffee drinking shrank to just early mornings, and I lost the habit of all-day consumption.  But just lately, I’ve been involved in offering professional development–which always cries for coffee–, and I have moved my office to a building that offers a Keurig.

(When my office began offering more and more professional development events, I allocated some funds in my tightly squeezed budget to buy my own K-cup brewer.

The fiscal officer called me into her office and asked me about the request.
“It’s….a coffee maker,” I said, and I explained that a participant could make a  cup of whatever her favorite drink is; she isn’t constrained to one choice.
She looked at me puzzled, and I wandered all around the topic, trying to explain.
Finally, I asked, “Do you…speak coffee?” She confessed she did not.
Never mind,” I sighed, and left her pristine office.)
How lucky that I had the chance to move to the land of K-Cups. I keep a hidden stash of French roast pods for days when moral stamina is needed.

************

But still.  I am a caffeine wussy compared to the championship days when I sipped a steaming brew for most of my waking hours.  When I try–oh, it tastes so good, but my eyelids refuse to close, my leg starts to jiggle, and I find myself, like now, awake and typing at…let’s see: 3:45 AM.

I know there are those who don’t drink coffee–in fact, I married outside of the Clan. Mark, he likes him a strong steeped cup of tea in the morning, but I’ve never known him to quaff coffee.  He loves, though, that good morning smell. And I have colleagues and dear ones who’ve gone over to the decaff side; I suspect they are healthier and less stressed, and probably, on the whole, a great deal more balanced than I.

But, my friends…I do not care.  I have peeled away my vices: I may indulge in a glass of wine or a bottle of beer a scant once or twice a year.  And I haven’t had a cigarette in, oh, sixty pounds or so. We limit red meat.  We’re sparing with salt. But the wakeful hours of a dark Thursday morning are a small and occasional price to pay for the enjoyment, the energy, the elixir, of dark roast, brewed to perfection.

I am a member of the Clan MacCaffeine; it’s a lifelong membership and a proud one. And, as with any good clan, belonging to this one comes with rules.  I have pledged to honor the bean. And I have pledged to share it.

So, please know this…if you are ever wandering by my house, and the need for caffeine strikes you, I will take you in and set you up.  I will press a pot of coffee; I will set a steaming mug before you.  I will offer cream and sugar; I will pluck a silver spoon from the ‘company’s coming’ drawer.

And I will keep you company.  I will peer at you through the fragrant steam, and I will ask you what brought you to walk down the quiet streets of my neighborhood, and I will listen close to your reply.  I will savor that talk, and I will savor the dark, bold brew we share.

I’m of the Clan MacCaffeine.  This, dear one, is what we do.