Herbert Neubauer/Reuters/File
A worker mows a soccer stadium in Vienna before a match.

Why tender grass requires nerves of steel

The Greek gods should have given Sisyphus a lawn mower instead of a rock, and put him in Coral Gables instead of on a hill in Hades.

It’s August, and I’ve only mowed my yard three times this year. Part of the reason is that we live in Maine, and the growing season starts late; part of it is our thin and sandy soil; and part is our rising tolerance for a raggedy front lawn. 

I don’t dislike mowing. It provides immediate feedback: You can easily see how much work is done and how much is left to do. You can’t beat the scent of freshly mowed grass, and I love the way it stains my sneakers. I like to mow. 

Lawn mowers are a different story.

My first steady grass-cutting partner was a modest, two-tone ride-on mower. I was 9, and driving that little tractor was a highlight of my week. We lived in Virginia, and I mowed every Saturday. In May and June, that was barely enough to keep up. Once August rolled around, though, the grass went dormant, and I’d be driving around the yard just looking for something to run over. 

Our next mower was a much larger model from Sears. It had headlights and a cushioned seat. It was a pull-start, and its large engine required a hefty pull. Now we lived in Florida, and I mowed year-round. If the gods had truly been mad at Sisyphus, they would have given him a lawn mower instead of a rock and put him in Coral Gables instead of on a hill in Hades. That mower and I were at odds from the start. On its best days, it required at least 15 pulls. On its worst days ... well, I recall its worst day.

We had both grown a little older. I was 17, and the mower was 6. I didn’t think 6 years was a full life for a machine, but I had a lot to learn. It was a hot July day – in Connecticut, now – and Mississippi muggy. I was in our driveway trying to start the mower. 

After about 40 pulls, many of which kicked back, tearing the black rubber T-grip out of my fingers, I surmised that perhaps I had a fouled spark plug. Still coherent, I went and bought a new plug and installed it. Forty pulls later, I thought perhaps it was a carburetor issue. I removed, cleaned, and reinstalled the carburetor. Forty pulls after that, I picked up the biggest crescent wrench we had in the garage and began pounding on the engine, making loud TINK! noises that echoed through the tall trees in the neighborhood. It must have sounded as though I was laying down railroad tracks. Our next-door neighbor, Mrs. Robbens, came out to investigate.

I was unaware of her until she reached the split-rail fence that ran between our driveways. She said, “Chuck?” with genuine motherly concern in her voice. I must have looked like a furious and deadly blond chimpanzee in gym shorts and moccasins. I turned my head and looked at her over my shoulder. Something in my eyes made her scuttle back into her house without a word.

I wish I could say that was the only time I badly rattled Mrs. Robbens. 

But five years later, almost exactly, I was back for a visit. It was my wedding day, and I’d gone into town for a haircut. Returning home to get ready for the ceremony, I was admittedly preoccupied. I pulled into the drive, got out of my car, and walked down the flagstone path, up the stone steps, and in the front door. I put my car keys in my pocket and was shocked to see Mrs. Rob­bens coming downstairs in her nightgown. She seemed equally shocked. 

Understandably flustered, I said, “Mrs. Robbens, what are you doing here?”

She did her best to speak, her mouth working like a guppy’s out of the water. She managed to reply, in a strangled voice, “I ... I live here.”

I’d like to say that the Robbenses’ house and ours were identical. They were not. I’d like to say they were similar, but that’s not true. We didn’t even have a flagstone path or stone steps. 

Back to the mower. I did not manage to beat it to death. It limped moodily along for another year. I left for college, and my parents got rid of it and hired someone to cut our grass.

After college, my wife and I lived on New York’s Upper East Side for a few years. The Parks Department did my mowing.

Around then, roughly during the Iran-Contra hearings, my in-laws bought a smallish gas mower for incidental trimming around their house. Since this is not a commercial, I can’t divulge the brand name, but it rhymes with Rhonda. It started on the first pull every time. It still starts on the first pull, 41 years later. I mowed my mother-in-law’s little fenced-in front yard with it just yesterday.

I have two self-propelled mowers now, and I enjoy the walk around our property that they require, even on the hottest of Maine days. I bought one of them secondhand, and it’s on borrowed time. I use it for rough mowing around our yard’s perimeter. The second one is new, bought this summer when we felt flush.

Its brand name rhymes with Rhonda.

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