BOSTON — I was surprised recently when I read the story of a sailor thrown overboard in a storm who was certain he was about to drown. After his rescue, he was asked what had gone through his mind. He said he wished at that moment that he had mowed his lawn one more time. I empathized with the guy, a tiny little bit, and that surprised me.
Flashback: My dad, like many dads, was not a patient yardman. He was skilled in other ways. He spent most days and many nights in a coat and tie working for a downtown public-relations firm.
Everybody liked him. He wrote well and garnered much publicity for his clients. But when he was at home, in the yard, he was not so skilled with people, with growing things, or with the machinery that they had in common.
As a kid, I saw him yank the starting cord completely out of the old power mower. I also saw him rip up, by their roots, Mom's long-standing hedges over some perceived injustice they'd just committed. He was the kind of yard guy who figured that if the directions on the weed killer said he should use one tablespoon for one gallon of water, his gallon would need close to a cup of the stuff.
Our front lawn was often completely yellow for the first five weeks of every summer.
Although he had three boys (a built-in yard crew that he, from our perspective, drove mercilessly to perform yard tasks at a standard high above the suburban norm), our yard rarely reached a grade higher than a C-minus. The yard - and the work it entailed - was a source of constant contention between him and his boys, with whom, let us confess, he was likewise not overly patient.
It did not help matters that his dad - our grandfather - 20 minutes from us across town, had a persistently amazing stand of rich, thick Kentucky bluegrass. It was neatly manicured, absolutely weedless, and a deep, dark green that felt almost spongy when you walked on it. Roses bloomed, grapes vined, and trees gracefully shaded around my grandfather's home.
"How do you do it, Grandpa?" we'd ask, knowing somehow that this was the standard we were being encouraged to meet.
"Oh, it's nothing really," he'd say. "Just a little mowing, a little weeding. Anybody could do it if they just took the time."
I think it was my grandpa's way of telling my dad to spend more time on the yard, and maybe with us boys. But we had as much time working in the yard as we wanted - more time. It's not easy working with an impatient yardman. Since Dad didn't get much sunshine during the rest of the week, on Saturdays his face would get red and he'd sweat and get angry and we boys did our best to stay on the opposite side of the yard. In fact, if he was in the backyard, we tried to be in the front.
Shortly after we boys left for college, our folks moved to Florida and into a condo. Should have happened years before. Without a yard to occupy his weekends, Dad was calmer, more at ease, spending his weekends by the pool and enjoying the tended flowers and nearby golf courses. This enjoying of the surrounding yard was something he'd seldom done - or ever learned to do - and it wasn't something he taught us kids to do.
My older brother now lives in a well-tended condo in Switzerland. I don't think he's personally pulled a weed or mowed a lawn since he left for college. My younger brother lives in Texas and had his backyard taken out and a pool put in.
As for me, I'm still learning. My theory is that I'll mow the lawn when I'm happy to mow it, and not mow it when I'm not happy to mow it. I'll weed when I'm happy to weed, and won't when I'm not. It's a radical theory based on the idea that happiness in the home - and the homeowner - is more important than trimmed and weeded grass. Fortunately, I still have enough suburban social conscience that my happiness fades as my lawn gets scraggly.
IN PRACTICE, the theory comes down to telling myself (silently, beneath the roar of the mower), "I enjoy mowing this single swath of grass." And then, when I get to the end, turning around and telling myself again, "I enjoy mowing this particular swath of grass." I do that until the lawn is mowed. I weed the same way.
I've discovered that if I take it slowly enough and tell myself enough, I do in fact enjoy mowing and weeding my lawn. And I enjoy the look after it's done.
So when the drowning sailor said he wished he'd mowed the lawn one more time, I could identify with him, though that probably would not have been my last thought. A certain peaceable orderliness - a sense of a life well lived - arises with a mowed lawn.
So I suppose I've matured a bit in the years since Dad was learning his own lessons on the suburban-lawn training ground.
My grown kids, I notice, both live in apartments.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society