It’s my dad’s birthday on Tuesday; our fourth one without him being here. It seems like an incredibly long time and it seems like it’s not been long at all, which, I’ve come to realize, is the way we come to experience grieving. Or certainly the way I have. Dad is still very much a part of my life and (again, I’ve come to realize) I don’t think that will change, either. I talk to him, especially while I’m at the family homestead, mowing the lawn. I say goodnight to his photo each night as I shut the lights, but I say goodnight to all the people in the photos, and each night I feel the same hint of surprise that he is not in my daily life quite the same way as he was before. It’s all very strange and all very reassuring, too, and if it sounds a bit muddled, well, welcome to my world. It seems to work for me.
If you are a loyal Convivio Book of Days reader, I worry sometimes that you must get tired of hearing me ramble on about my father and all those who have come and gone before me. But I know in my core that this line of people I come from and this Book of Days are of the same fabric. They are part of my round of the year and part of my spiraling thread of time and so the things all those people taught me––even ancestors I never knew––those things are all part of this book. It’s a collaboration, co-authored by you and me and all my family, no matter where they are or when they walked this old earth.
So let’s get back to the lawn. First of all, let me state that I am not a fan of the concept. I think lawns are a waste of time and resources and I have to agree a bit with those who say that suburban America has been brainwashed into the green lawn concept. And when I hear, as I did this past weekend, about communities that don’t even allow homeowners to plant fruits or vegetables––on their own land!––I know the lawn thing has gone too far. Allow me to say exactly what you’re thinking: Rules like that are just plain stupid. If you are on a neighborhood board making such rules, it’s clear we will not get along.
Seth and I, we have more sense than to have a lawn at our house. Instead, we live on a plot of land that more closely resembles a dense forest. There are fruit trees and there’s a vegetable garden (fallow right now, but still), and I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but we think it’s just right.
But when I think of my dad, even though he was an auto mechanic by trade (a “Doctor of Motors,” he’d say), Dad has a broom in hand, sweeping up after mowing the lawn. The lawn is green and lush, like a carpet, as Mom says. We Cutrones are not a traveling people, by and large, and so Dad’s pride was his home. He polished the stainless steel gutters, he kept everything running, and mostly, Dad loved his lawn. At the family homestead, we’d work on it together most Saturdays. Dad mowed on his tractor while I did the rest. Back then, I did it because I felt obligated to help. I’d peel my eyes open on a Saturday morning, waking to the sound of Dad riding the mower tractor outside my bedroom window after a Friday night of dancing to the Smiths and New Order at Respectable Street Cafe, and I’d drag myself out there, roll up my sleeves, and get to work. My favorite times were summer days, when we’d finish just before the afternoon thunderstorms rolled in: Dad and I would take shelter in the open garage and watch the wind and the rain and delight in the rain cooled air.
But these four years now the lawn is my job. It has come to be my Dad Time. I watch the skies and the trees and the pond for wood storks and other tall wading birds. Sometimes I sing songs to myself. Mostly I am lost in my thoughts, thoughts that I share with my father as I go about the work that needs doing, the work we’d do together.
Recently, Dad’s old tractor, which, for a long time now, required a growing list of preliminary tasks before it would start properly, finally gave up the ghost. It felt a bit clunky that last time as I rode it and mowed. All was fine in the front yard, but the back yard? Not so much. At one point, I looked behind me and gasped: I was creating deep gouges in the lawn, but it was too late; I was halfway to the finish line, so I kept on mowing. When I was done, the lawn looked more like a field freshly plowed for planting with row after row of furrows. I looked at the undercarriage of the mower and realized the blade assembly had rusted through and one side had given way so that the mower was cutting at an angle of about 45 degrees. My sister came out, gave me a look, and said exactly what I was thinking: “Oh, Dad would not be happy.” She put an awful lot of emphasis on the word not.
I spent a couple of weeks feeling badly and paralyzed by indecision over what to do: fix the tractor? It seemed beyond repair. Buy a new one? That’s a lot of money. Buy an electric tractor? More my speed, but that’s even more money. Finally, I took a leap of faith and bought an electric push mower, a Ryobi that’s powered by rechargeable batteries. It’s a lot of walking, but it turned out to be, I think, one of my better decisions in life. I can mow that lawn using two fully charged batteries. I get exercise and lawn day now counts as a work-out day. It’s quiet. It reminds me a bit of Dad’s old Sunbeam mower, the push mower he used when we lived in New York. And you know what? I think Dad would approve. The lawn looks better than ever, and in spite of how I feel about lawns in suburbia in general, I want that lawn looking verdant and rich. Like a carpet.
Images: “No one ever got bored with a pocketful of chores.” I never heard Dad complain of boredom, and I don’t remember what that particular phenomenon feels like, either. Top: Dad with his broom, sweeping up after a fresh cut with his Sunbeam push mower, Valley Stream, New York, circa 1972. Bottom: Me with what my sister Marietta calls “Johnny’s new toy.” It’s the electric battery powered Ryobi push mower at the family homestead. If you need a new mower yourself, I highly recommend it. Dad’s birthday is on Tuesday and I know exactly what I’ll be doing: I’m mowing the lawn, and maybe singing him a song or two.