“Lawn Boys” was written for Country Journal in late 2000. It was paid for and set in galleys for the July-August 2001 issue, but the magazine folded just before the issue came out. This slightly revised version finally appeared in Country in September 2016.
Fifteen years ago, our move from Boston to the Berkshires and an acre of robust lawn coincided with a year of copious rainfall. Before I could get the old mower that came with the house in working order that fall, the dew was wetting my knees when I took out the compost each evening. The next summer the rains continued, and the pleasure I took in biblical-dimension thunderstorms was mitigated by the sight (I could swear) of the lawn growing before my eyes.
Left to my own judgment, I would have mowed once a month. Laziness is complemented by the heightened satisfaction of cutting a neat swath through high lush growth. My own judgment, however, had little to do with it. My three-year-old boy had a passion for mowing. He’d happily cover the entire yard on his own with one of his two plastic mowers, but that amusement paled next to the excitement of the real thing. Daily he begged me to “mow with the big mower,” and more often than not I succumbed. That summer I mowed, at least one patch of the yard, on almost every sunny day.
Attaining the age of five did not dim his passion for groundskeeping. (He had a two-year-old apprentice of his own by that time, too.) The fleet of plastic mowers had doubled in number and included one model with green-and-yellow paint scheme, faux electric ignition, and safety bar that mimicked my aging Lawn-Boy. In the winter, when his machines doubled as “snow mowers,” I drew the line and watched with my hands comfortably in my pockets. All summer long, however, he still goaded me into mowing ahead of my own inclination.
The memory gently fades: I wheel the machine out of the garage, and the boys do likewise and pull in line behind me. I pump the choke a few times, and they do the same. We start them up together, and we’re off. They follow me like worker ants, copying my every move. I make a turn and look back to see them executing a series of tight pushes and pulls just as I did a minute ago to maneuver around a newly planted sapling. Where I tipped back onto the rear wheels to avoid running the blade into a rock, they tip back onto theirs. The sight of them in my sweaty peripheral vision, working so earnestly, makes the job pass quickly. Occasionally one of them declares that he’s out of gas, and we take a quick break to fill up, using a spare twig for a pump.
If it were up to me, again, I wouldn’t bother to rake the cuttings. In this case my lassitude is bolstered by my lawn-care bible⎯a pamphlet put out by the State Department of Environmental Protection, which tells me that the cut grass is good fertilizer for the lawn. Alas, wheelbarrows rate a close second to lawnmowers in the older boy’s enthusiasms, and often the only way I can avoid gunning up the mower is to let him help me rake yesterday’s cuttings and wheel them off to the compost pile. He fills up his small plastic wheelbarrow and once again apes my every move as we trudge up the hill and into the woods. When the grass finally gives out for the year, our elm, maple, and cherry trees provide us with ample employment all autumn long.
One morning during our first rural September, I was able to divert him from our labors by pointing out a smattering of seeds floating across the sky on their white pappi. We walked over to the bull thistle that I naively had allowed to take over one corner of the garden and watched as the new cotton-ball seed clusters released individuals on their tufty parachutes. They leapt off the plant one by one like paratroopers⎯an apt simile, I later realized, considering their martial designs on my neighbors’ lawns and gardens⎯and took to the wind, rising up high over house and trees. We lay on our backs side by side on the freshly mowed grass and watched the seeds soar away against a pristine blue background.
“They look like stars,” my son said. “Stars in the daytime.” And so they did. We watched the changing constellations for a while and then went in for lunch.