Soft grass, nerves of steel: my lifelong battle against lawn mowers.


It’s August and I’ve only mowed my garden 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, sandy soil; and part is our growing tolerance for a ragged front lawn.

I don’t like to mow. It provides immediate feedback: you can easily see how much work is done and how much remains to be done. You can’t beat the smell of freshly mown grass, and I love the way it stains my sneakers. I like to mow.

Lawn mowers are another story.

My first stable grass cutting partner was a modest two-tone riding mower. I was 9 years old and driving this small tractor was a highlight of my week. We lived in Virginia and I mowed every Saturday. In May and June, it was barely enough to keep up. After August rolled around, the grass fell dormant and I was driving around the yard looking for something to mash.

Our next mower was a much larger model from Sears. There were headlights and a padded seat. It was a pull start, and its big engine required heavy traction. Now we lived in Florida and I mowed year round. If the gods had really 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. This mower and I disagreed from the start. In his best days, it needed at least 15 prints. On his worst days … well, I remember his worst day.

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

After about 40 pull-ups, many of which backed up, snatching the black rubber T-handle from my fingers, I assumed I might have a fouled spark plug. Still consistent, I went and bought a new outlet and installed it. Forty shots later I thought maybe it was a carburetor problem. I disassembled, cleaned and reinstalled the carburetor. Forty strokes later I picked up the biggest adjustable wrench we had in the garage and started pounding the motor, making a noise TINK! noises that echoed through the tall trees in the neighborhood. It must have sounded like I was laying railroad tracks. Our next door neighbor, Mrs. Robbens, came out to investigate.

I ignored her until she reached the split rail fence that separated our walkways. She said, “Chuck? With genuine maternal concern in her voice. I must have looked like a furious and deadly blond chimpanzee in athletic shorts and moccasins. I turned my head and looked at her over my shoulder. Something in my eyes made her walk home without a word.

I wish I could say that this was the only time I seriously rocked Mrs Robbens.

But five years later, almost exactly, I was back for a visit. It was my wedding day, and I had gone to town to have my hair cut. When I got home to prepare for the ceremony, I was certainly concerned. I entered the driveway, got out of my car and walked down the paved path, up the stone steps, and through the front door. I put my car keys in my pocket and was shocked to see Mrs. Robbens coming down the stairs in a nightgown. She looked just as shocked.

Naturally pissed off, I said, “Mrs. Robbens, what are you doing here?

She did her best to speak, her mouth functioning like a guppy’s out of water. She managed to answer, in a choked voice: “I … I live here.”

I would like to say that the Robbens house and ours were the same. They were not. I would like to say that they were similar, but that is not true. We didn’t even have a paved path or stone steps.

Back to the mower. I failed to beat him to death. He limped in a bad mood for another year. I went to college, and my parents got rid of it and hired someone to mow our grass.

After college, my wife and I lived on the Upper East Side of New York City for a few years. The parks department did my mowing.

Around this time, roughly during the Iran-Contra hearings, my in-laws bought a small gas mower for accessory mowing around their house. Since this is not an advertisement, I cannot disclose the brand name, but it rhymes with Rhonda. It started on the first try every time. It always starts the first time, 41 years later. I mowed my mother-in-law’s little fenced yard with this just yesterday.

I now have two self-propelled mowers and enjoy the drive around our property that they need, even on the hottest days in Maine. I bought a used one, and it’s on borrowed time. I use it to roughly mow the perimeter of our garden. The second is new, bought this summer when you could smell the color.

Its brand name rhymes with Rhonda.


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