Lawn Mowers And the Likeness Between Father And Son

When Barbara and I bought our first house, a friend at work pulled me aside to give me some advice. I thought he was going to tell me to go for an adjustable-rate mortgage or to make the smallest down payment possible, but instead he told me: ''Whatever you do, don't buy a lawn mower. They cost too much and they're always breaking down.''

I must have looked uncertain at that point, because he added, ''Besides, mowers are dangerous.'' And then he leaned closer. ''You could cut your foot off with one.''

Now, lawn mowers were actually something I knew a good deal about, at least from passive observation. My parents and brother and I had lived on a 10-acre spread just outside the city limits of Baton Rouge, La. And while much of the property was taken up with the house, big live oaks in the front, a pine orchard in back, and my mother's cherished rose garden, the front yard consisted of enough lawn to permit a football game at one end and a baseball game at the other, simultaneously.

That meant plenty of grass to mow, and in most of my hot-weather memories of Baton Rouge, my father plays the central part in his boots, shorts, and pith helmet, striding behind his lawn mower -- an aged, impossibly complex contraption whose arrival on the scene predated mine by a decade or more. In retrospect, my dad's mower seems like a relic of the first phase of the Industrial Revolution, a gassy, clanking, belching collection of floppy belts, coarsely meshing gears, and razor-sharp blades.

Most summer weekends, my dad ran that mower from just after breakfast till the light left the sky. The big, ugly Muscovy ducks would wander up from the pond to shake their wattles at him for making so much racket. That old mower was so noisy that only the whistle from the evening train could drown it out, and often my mother used that train whistle as a signal to come to the porch door and wave to my father to come in.

That was fine for him, but now that I was about to become a homeowner myself, I had better things to do with my time. Fortunately, there were two teenage brothers across the street from the house we bought. They had their own mower and they would do my yard for less than it cost me to take the family to a movie.

But time went by, my sons grew, and suddenly we needed more house. The one we live in now is big, beautiful, and old -- none of your just-built abodes for us. There is a garden that my wife, Barbara, has filled with rose bushes. There is a huge live oak in front, and in back there's another at least as big as the first. There is a park down the street where the boys played when they were younger, and a Little League diamond, and a pond, all within a couple of blocks.

There was only one problem: no teenagers in the neighborhood. Fortunately, I won an award for a poem of mine about then, and, to Barbara's astonishment -- and, I admit, my own as well -- I spent the prize money on a brand-new, top-of-the-line, all-electric lawn mower.

My high-tech mower worked fine for a while, but shortly after the warranty expired, so did it. It was early one afternoon, and I had just begun to mow. As the shadows lengthened, I fiddled and fussed to no avail. Barbara came by periodically in her gardening clothes as I yanked wires and checked fittings.

The boys offered to help, and when I dismissed them a little too curtly, they ran off to feed the ducks who had wandered up from the pond down the street. The sun went down, and still I tinkered with my fancy, lifeless lawn mower.

A half-mile away, the evening train went by. Suddenly, I threw my head back and laughed. I had become my father! Why hadn't I seen it before?

I lived in a big, old house with huge live oaks. I was married to a woman who spent most of her spare time in her rose garden, as my mother had. There were two boys in the house. There were ducks. There was even a train track nearby, something I hadn't noticed when we moved in. Or had I?

If it is true that we are often guided by principles we barely understand, then I was a textbook illustration. I had recreated the days of my youth, right down to the lawn mower.

My only mistake was trying to buy a mower as fancy as my dad's. I needed a simpler version, one my father would have surely found ridiculous. The mower I have now is the bottom-of-the-line model, and for the past eight summers it has started right up with a single pull of the cord.

I love to mow now. I know I don't spend as much time in the yard as my dad did, but mowing is a meditative time for me, and I always come away with a sense of a job well done.

Not that I would say that to the boys. After all, there's not much to say: You get the mower out, you mow, you put it away. Your world is a little tidier. Your heart is at ease.

I'm betting the boys will catch on.

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