Soundings: Summer's ritual

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Author: Kerry Temple ’74

Kerry Temple

There is not a time I cut the grass that I do not think of my dad.

It was a chore we shared. Looking back, it was also a measure of things and ways and rites of passage. And now when I mow the lawn each week, my idle mind follows those old passageways that always carry me to a smile.

Before we moved up in the world, living in a little house with a little yard, my dad used a wooden-handled manual push mower. He kept a file to sharpen the blades, spiraled into a reel that spun only as fast as he pushed. It required not only exertion but a frequent rocking back-then-forward motion each time the blades got blocked by clumps of grass. A little twig could jam the thing altogether.

I was too short in those days to assume the proper positioning, to get the angle necessary to drive the mower both forward and down. But I remember reaching up to the handles, no leverage to make it go. And I remember thinking how big and strong my father was, able to power the whirring, clipping machine that gave our little square yard a flat-top haircut.

I was nearing adolescence when we moved across town, to a nice neighborhood with bigger yards and lusher lawns. The old manual mower came with us, but its blades turned dull and brown in time, the wood hard and worn, wedged forever in a corner of the shed.

We got an apple-green Lawnboy instead. It seemed like a beast — the noise and ferocious gobbling, chomping appetite and all the warnings about keeping my hands out from under there. And my dad became mechanic, tinkerer and power-tool user.

I learned how to yank the starter cord just so, to pour the oil and gasoline and how to change the spark plugs and adjust the height and tighten the cables and screws. My dad sharpened the blades.

Looking back, I think this sharing of knowledge — this initiation into the things men do — took on greater meaning simply because such passing down was so rare between my dad and me.

He didn’t fix cars. I had no patience with fishing. He knew little about sports. His work as an accountant was boring to me. He stopped hunting as a teenager when he accidentally shot and killed his dog who had flushed some rabbits for him.

We seemed to have little in common. But every Saturday we took on the yard together.

And when all was done, he went inside “for a cold one,” and brought out a can of Budweiser, King of Beers. He would punch two triangular holes into the lid and take a big, satisfying gulp and swallow.

And he always gave me the second.

Even my earliest memories of cutting the grass with my dad include the celebratory swig of beer. On a lucky day I got a second swallow before he drained the can.

Just last week a neighbor handed me “a cold one” outdoors, and the first mouthful took me back into childhood and my dad passing me the can despite my mother’s objections.

In time we switched roles. I went from being the apprentice who moved the hoses and picked up the sticks and later swept and raked and did the cleanup to being the one who actually ran the mower. And he eventually became both assistant and overseer, prepping the yard for me but then supervising the mowing, inspecting the lines, the edges, the missed spears of grass.

Other changes came. The young me who happily entered his world of yard work and mowing, who savored the smell of gasoline on my fingers and grass stains and dirt in the scrolls of my skin and nails, became a teenager who bristled and balked at the chores, eager to run off with friends and leave him to his domestic ball and chain.

We debated bagging (too much trouble, I said) and raking (the clippings help nourish the ground, I said). And eventually I took on the responsibility myself, proudly mowing without his urging or supervision. It became my job, and it felt a little like the beginning of manhood.

For my first Father’s Day, the only time my dad marked the occasion, he gave me a brand new manual push mower, blades sharp as scythes, for my little yard in a tidy little neighborhood. It served me well for years.

But I, too, graduated to a bigger yard and took on a power mower, an apple-green Lawnboy — which my wife and I share. We water the grass to make it grow, then cut it when it grows too much. It’s kind of an absurd practice for modern humans — a weekly hamster cage in suburban America.

But she and I both like mowing, especially when you don’t have to do it every time, every week. It’s good exercise, time alone, feels productive, time to think. We are not fastidious with our yard, but I like the interaction. And I look forward to the day I hand down the lessons of mowing and mower maintenance to children who will take their turn, and let me watch, cold beer in hand.


Kerry Temple is editor of Notre Dame Magazine. Email him at ktemple@nd.edu.


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