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.