Monday, July 27, 2009

Lawn Wars


Neighbors often stopped by to consult with my father--the gardener and caretaker of all green things--on how to grow geraniums, get rid of weeds, and make their lawns look like his.

You see, none of the houses on my street had a yard like ours. Our grass was soft as babies’ feet and greener than anyone else’s for blocks and blocks. Directly across from us, the white Colonial that needed a fresh coat of paint sat under tall shade trees, its lawn colorless and bedraggled, tired as the old terrier that slept there all summer long.

The neighbors next door to us, at the top end of the street, didn’t spend time in their garden either. Actually, they didn’t have a garden. They didn’t have a lawn. Though the family owned a steel scraps company and drove fancy cars—the husband exchanged his shiny Cadillac for a newer model every year—this neighbor’s yard was mostly dirt and tree roots.

But one summer, a flatbed truck appeared in the next door neighbor’s driveway carrying huge wheels of rolled up sod. In the course of a few hours, I watched several men unfurl the sod and lay it down in strips until the entire front yard was covered with a thick matting of green grass. I watched from the living room window. I simply couldn’t believe it.

That evening, the grumbling started in our house.

"Ha ha,” father said. He was Hollywood handsome with dark hair and eyes. “They think they can have an instant lawn? Wait a few weeks. Who’s going to take care of the weeds when they start showing?”

He had a point. My father was unpredictable, but when it came to gardens, I could rely on his knowledge and expertise.

At the dinner table, we kept talking about it.

“It doesn’t look good. It looks fake. It’s not a real lawn,” I said to make him and me feel better.

“Oh, I’m not worried,” he said with a flourish. “I told you. They have to take care of it. We’ll see how it looks in a few weeks.”

For someone who lacked patience, who was often short-tempered and mad, it amazed me how gentle he could be around horticultural things. When he got wild in the yard, it wasn’t a savage kind of wild. Out there he wore loose fitting, dirt-stained pants and didn’t care how he looked. (Weekday mornings, he wore custom-tailored suits to the office, manicured his nails, and expected us to be well-dressed.) In his garden, he dug and clawed at the earth until he was soaked with sweat, his hair no longer straight but curly and happily unkempt.


"How could anyone purchase a yard?" I wondered aloud as if it were a moral question.

“Bah! We’ll see what they do with it,” Dad said. “It takes work to grow a garden.”

I knew he was right. I watched him tend to our garden almost every day. And I watched how the garden tended to my father. If he was irritable, he could walk out into the yard and his plants wouldn’t yell back. When he swore at the lawn mower for not starting up, his temper dispelled faster in the fresh air.

“It doesn’t look that good,” I said again. In truth, that neighbor’s instant lawn depressed me. Could it be that my father’s labor was for naught?

I mean. Sure. We all saw that the instant lawn looked nicer than before—much nicer than the dirt and root infested plot that had once made our pristine yard shine brightest; But I didn’t want it to equal our yard. Our yard was hand-grown from seed, mowed with devotion week after week by my father.

Over the next several weeks, you can be sure we all kept a close watch on the neighbor’s lawn to see how it would hold up. Shameful to admit, but I felt joyous when the first batch of sod started turning yellow and brown.

“Dad! Did you see the grass? It’s got yellow patches. It’s turning yellow!” I said jumping up and down as if I’d won an award.

“No kidding?” he said, smiling. I could see his satisfaction removing every line in his face.

Within two weeks, either the Universe agreed with us or wanted to teach somebody a lesson because every strip of the neighbor’s new sod had turned a sickly yellow.

“It’s infested. Got some kind of bug,” my father said. “Didn’t I tell you? It’s not easy to have a lawn like mine. You have to pay attention. You have to mow it. Weed it. Water it. It doesn’t grow by itself you know. These things take work. Devotion. Love.”

The neighbors didn’t give up. Even though their second attempt at laying down sod took hold, everyone in my family knew the truth: buying a front yard didn’t count no matter how good it appeared on the surface. Home grown was better. Always and forever. Our neighbors had opted for the easy way out.

21 comments:

  1. This is such a beautiful story and all of the analogies to life in general that are subtly contained within took my breath away. In reading the past posts here I already see the chapters of a brilliant book.

    xo

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  2. Robin,
    Thank you, and thank you for bringing your perspective here.

    Jessica

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  3. I loved reading this. The landscaping of a home is so much a part of it, for me. Your father planting the seed and tending the lawn had to do with putting down roots and nurturing them. I especially love that he was so aware of that as he did it.

    It's impossible to truck that in!

    I once rented a house that I loved. I lived there for 3 years and then moved away to graduate school, my first 'real' job, etc. but when I came back to the area, years later, that same house was available, so I took it again and lived there until I met my husband, got married, he moved in, and we had our first child there. It was such a special place to me.

    The first week I lived there my father came up for the weekend and helped me clean the gutters, prune the bushes, get up all the dried heaps of magnolia leaves that had fallen and were not only killing the grass but providing breeding grounds for mosquitoes every time it rained.

    And... he brought grass seed and straw. Within a month I had the most beautiful lawn. The owner, my landlord, kept driving various family members by to show it off. It had been his mother's house, and apparently she had loved it, but tenants over the years had let things go.

    It was a lot of work, especially the first year. My dad came at least once a month to help me. I remember there was a hill on the side yard that was particularly tricky to plant, b/c the seed slid when watered and left bare spots. We worked on that together. I haven't thought about this in such a long time - that it mattered so much to him that 'home' have roots - he was determined I would have them too, even in a rental house.

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  4. Billie,
    Thank you. Your story is wonderful. Your father is something else: giving and caring. What a crazy coincidence that you could move back into that house at a different time in your life. All good things converged there including an appreciative landlord. More than lucky.

    Jessica

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  5. You know, I've always really admired people who can work with plants. I'm absolutely useless: plants shrivel and die in my care (I managed to overwater a cactus and underwater a ficus in the same season once). My father hates working in yards but he loves gorgeous ones; the grass is an obsession; he also hates shortcuts, as I've been told many times, and would, I'm sure, enjoy this story. As did I.

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  6. Hi, Sumita. Funny that you should say this. I am also an apologetic gardener. I admire gardens but am spotty when it comes to growing one. Loved hearing about your dad. Thanks for stopping by!

    Jessica

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  7. I love this post, Jessica. It makes me think of a woman who doesn't bother to take care of herself for a number of years, and then tries to "fix" the results of all that neglect with the help of a plastic surgeon. It also reminds me that the journey itself is the important thing, not just where you end up. You're a lovely writer; thank you!!

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  8. Hi, Michelle.
    So true about quick fixes!
    Thank you for your comment about the journey itself and for stopping by. I'm glad you enjoyed--

    Jessica

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  9. Oh, I am still chuckling at that trucked in lawn slowly yellowing.
    I can just see your Dad smiling and yes, tending gardens often brings things our in people they never knew they were blessed with...and certainly others never suspected they had in them. I know. Just lovely Jess!

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  10. Debbie--yes about bringing out latent blessings! So true! Thanks for stopping by.

    Jessica

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  11. Jon,
    Ha!Funny. True. Not so funny.
    But it will buy you a lawn!!! Glad you stopped by.

    Jessica

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  12. What a lovely story. My curiosity is aroused about the whole neighborhood, not just your family. Keep writing!

    One of my most enduring images of my father from my childhood is of him lying on the grass in his army fatigues (post-Korea) leisurely picking weeds out of his lawn. It was his way of relaxing. Funny how we mostly associate our dads with our lawns -- not our mothers. I associate mothers with gardens and flowers. And that's the way it's been with my own family. I plant the impatiens and try my luck at any number of perennial flowers each year, while my husband waxes nostalgic about the zoysia (sp?) lawns of his youth and worries over the length of the grass, the slugs and brown patches.

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  13. Hi, Gail.
    Great story about your father. I love seeing him sprawled out. What a luxury it must have been for him. Funny what you say about boys taking over the lawns and girls taking on flowers and gardens. In our house, my father did both, though my mother did step out every so often to snip a few roses for the dinner table.
    Thanks for stopping by!

    Jessica

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  14. Oh, how fascinating! I was reading this story like a kind of thriller, waiting to see what would happen to those shallow, lazy slackers. My dad is actually a lawn care guy by profession. Our grass is (mostly) gorgeous, but that's because we get our lawn care gratis. I do my best against our weeds in the garden, but my yard is bigger than my ambition.

    I wonder what would have happened if the neighbor's first try had stayed beautiful? Because sometimes, sadly, the easy way out DOES work. And that drives the rest of us crazy...

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  15. Hi, Kristina.
    I'm laughing at what you said: how the easy way out can work and drive the rest of us crazy. So so true!

    Jessica

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  16. I loved what you said about the garden tending to your father as he tended for his flowers. We often forget that our relationship with the earth is always reciprocal--for good and for ill.

    This is a wonderful post on so many levels--as all of yours have been.

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  17. Hey, Patry. We do so often forget how the earth breathes all around us. Thanks for bringing that up, and for stopping by.

    Jessica

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