The Lawn-Man: An Essay in Honor of my Father, Part 1 of 2

I will always remember my father as a lawn-man. He was not so by profession or even by hobby as much as by worry. A healthy, well-manicured patch of Bermuda sod brought satisfaction to him, which was, as far as I knew, a product of the sense of placement he achieved by tending his land.

I learned to respect his dominion over our grass not by the hours of physical labor – the mowing and plucking of weeds – but in his vigilant attention to its status, which was manifested in his furrowed brow and undecipherable mumbles over its perpetual need for work. This was transferred to me indirectly over the years as I observed him. Never was it necessary for him to sit me down and explain the seriousness of his task. Like most things I learned by what was spoken instinctively, through tones and groans, and in what went unspoken. In these unspecified habits his perspective slowly grew into me so that I thought about a lawn like he did. I learned that ours was never perfect but always respectable – middle class just like us (it never matched the impeccable Zoysia of the landscaped elites, but neither was it overrun with crab grass or un-mowed for long). I learned that the status of a man’s yard was somehow reflective of his character. I learned that the weed-eater was an unreliable and unfriendly beast, but necessary for landscaping. I learned that damage to our yard was not a light offense. And I learned  the material goodness of the yard as I enjoyed the fruit of my father’s labors playing in the grass, feeling the cool blades on my skin.

Like any artist, his work was guarded from outside tinkering. Only on rare occasions was I invited to participate in yard maintenance, and on these occasions my inefficiency did not justify much future responsibility. But this was more than art for my father – it was a solitary, meditative act. In its performance there was a quiet piety and seriousness requiring certain liturgical rhythms that should not be disturbed. The crank of the mower started a Gregorian hum that initiated and blanketed the ritual. Back and forth the priest would with deliberative movement carve parallel lanes into the green earth. His vestments were tattered from years of service and stained from the debris that is strewn by administering the elements. After the proper attention had been given to the sheering, the lifeless blades were offered to the compost heap in the vacant lot across the street, and the aroma of the pungent sacrifice spread for at least two squares miles in a good summer heat.

It was never wise to interrupt the ceremony although I did that very thing at least a dozen times (although I learned that the urgency of my request could often off-set the seriousness of the violation). Occasionally a rogue toy or clump of dog feces would also bring the mower to a groaning halt. In either case the focus was broken in the same way a drunk spectator might interrupt a sporting-event by streaking buck-naked across the field, or like a loud noise might jolt someone back to reality from a daydream.

This image of my father is so centered in my memory because he doesn’t often tell stories about himself. Some men are known for their stories – usually cycling through a dozen well-worn tales with several variations. Whenever you are in their company, you can expect another rendition: their eyes become sharp and mannerisms more grandiose as they recall some time and place. This is how they intend themselves in the world.

But not my father. Rather, he works diligently at what is before him. He does this in order to create, I think. His working is his story: the tireless tending to the land is one piece of a larger effort to write his story into being. From my perspective, he keeps his narrative out “in front,” chronologically speaking, as if to be defined by what he can cultivate in the present instead of reaching back into history in order to recapitulate a lost epoch. These days are the ones he works from and for.

The stories he told me, then, were those I witnessed unfold in our not-pristine-but-well-cared-for yard. These stories have texture and smell. They are vivid and planted. They help me understand my father and myself. The practice of lawn maintenance was space for my father to take an inward journey, which shouldn’t be surprising since horticulture has for many centuries been a natural friend to the interior life, but it was also publicly performed. He led me indirectly to the land, and now in my experience of the land I experience him.

Whenever I walk through a nice patch of grass, I still can’t help but imagine my father standing out in front of our porch on a late-summer afternoon quietly directing the water hose back and forth over the thirsty ground wearing frayed jean shorts, no shirt, and flip flops. He is in the thicket of thought, and so I join him there.

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