My niece's teenage son, Leman, came to work for me the last week of June. He's five feet, five inches tall, thin as a rail, and weighs 113 pounds. I guess 115, and Leman corrects me. That tells me a lot. Weight is important to him, and he is unwilling to claim more than his due.
I need some help, no doubt about that. I've lost control of the front lawn and never did have a handle on the plantings in the backyard and on our acreage.
I love to plant trees, flowers, bushes, and vegetables, but after two hours of such work, I am too tired to take care of what I've planted. Elm seedlings are taking over the hedge, birds deposit mulberries around our house in summer, and squirrels plant walnuts among my raspberries every fall. Over the past couple years I've grubbed out a huge brush pile, but I keep falling further behind.
That's just in the yard around my house. On a small patch of scraggly prairie a few miles west of Fort Dodge, Iowa, are 450 small walnut trees and 150 little oaks. I planted those nuts and acorns four years ago, and weeds have taken over, obscuring the trees.
So when my niece, Pat, writes to me, I'm getting desperate for help. Pat is a teacher and needs to attend a seminar. She wonders if Leman can stay with us that week.
My wife says, "He'll be good help for you with the yard and your trees."
I am dubious. "We haven't seen this boy more than once a year," I say. "We hardly know him. Kids nowadays don't want to work. TV and the city swimming pool will take most of his time."
Nevertheless, I write back to Pat, "Leman is welcome, and if he wants to work, I'll pay him to help me with yardwork."
We pick up Leman the following Saturday. He is ill at ease, looking at the floor through rimless glasses, a shy smile playing across his thin adolescent face. Suddenly I remember what it's like to be in your early teens, and I feel sorry for the boy, being trundled away to spend a week with an old couple he scarcely knows.
On Sunday morning, Leman goes to church with us, and I introduce him. He stays very quiet but acknowledges each greeting with a smile and a nod.
After lunch, I ask Leman to mow the front lawn. Without being told, he mows correctly along the sidewalk so clippings are thrown onto the lawn, not onto the sidewalk. In 40 minutes, it's done.
"The boy knows a thing or two about mowing lawns," I say to my wife.
On Monday we start cutting up the brush pile, and on Tuesday we take two trailer loads to the landfill. Then we grub elm, mulberry, and walnut seedlings out of the hedge.
The following day we finish cutting up the brush, and while I rest, Leman mows the backyard.
I decide it's time to find out if this slender teen can handle my big brush mower. We drive to the acreage, and I show him where to set the choke button and how to pull the starter rope on the Briggs & Stratton engine. I tell Leman to mow a couple acres of thistles and brush but to spare my 600 walnut and oak saplings.
"You'll have to watch out on uneven ground," I say. "When the mower hits a rough spot, it tries to jump out of your hands."
I watch Leman wrestle the machine over humps and hollows for half an hour. His shirt is off and sweat trickles down his back.
When the mower hits a gopher mound and jerks toward one of my seedlings, Leman's muscles bulge. His hands clamp onto the handle, and he pulls the errant machine back into line.
By the end of the week, my hedge and lawn are beautiful. Even the garden is relatively free of weeds. My 600 saplings are easily visible, where before I could see only brush and thistles. I give Leman a check for the work he has done and deliver him back home. His smile is not quite as shy as it was a week ago.
With boys like Leman growing up, I rest assured. The world will be in good hands and my trees will be well cared for.
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