Family Rituals: Dads And The Zen Of Lawn Maintenance

Huffing grass

After he mowed our humble, shaded front, back, and side yards, dad—if he hadn’t already—stripped his blood bank donor rewards shirt. Those years his skin was tan, turned golden from time spent in the slice of sunshine cutting through the oak tree canopy. We had two lawn chairs that reclined until they were completely horizontal, my father’s thin frame rested there after mowing, on a network of butter-colored vinyl.

Sometimes I’d join him in the second chair; I'd lay flat and still. He was celebrating a hard job done well—a pause in the penance his Catholic guilt never allowed him to feel was fully finished. I was being spiritual, too, but in vain. I prayed the lemon juice applied to my jet black hair would grant me highlights like the other girls at middle school whose mothers drove them to the salon for bleaching treatments.

Flecks of fat St. Augustine turf made curious constellations on his back. He tamped down his pride in maintaining the lawn—mowing, weeding, hacking back the rampant English ivy. He alone assigned himself these duties. Raised in a family of bookbinders in Wisconsin, dad retained a suffocating modesty, largely symbolized in his Chicago Cubs fandom, and possessing a perfectly tended yard was another symptom of it. Though my mother liked a manicured lawn, it wasn’t a source of identity. 

I grew up soft and spoiled in a deeply middle-class neighborhood in the Florida panhandle. Free to soak up as much MTV and nascent internet as I wanted, sustained by Bagel Bites and Fresca. And I loved it. As an early fan of a life of leisure, I innately understood how dad enjoyed intermittently napping and watching games at Wrigley Field from the couch. I didn’t get how he enjoyed crawling around the yard during high pollen count mornings. But he was still out there. Every. Single. Weekend. Some Saturdays he pushed his lawn mower up our dead-end street to tame others’ grassy tangles. He’d rarely ask neighbors’ permission and absolutely never expected any thanks.

I preferred lying still in an undeserved rest—not just back then when I was a teen, but for years after. After a number of dorm rooms and apartments, I landed in a ranch-style home with ample front and back yards my senior year of college. My roommates and I didn’t pay much mind to the billowing ragweed till it neared my waist; we were too distracted by getting laid, weed, and, occasionally, school. I outsourced lawn mowing to neighborhood kids and acquaintances. Potted projects—like Thai basil, tomatoes, and an adolescent weed plant—were different. Those I could handle, manageable pucks of land I could easily control. This overgrown yard was a monster who had an independent will to self-possess; I rarely had the strength to attempt an exorcism.

By that point, my father had been diagnosed with melanoma, had the spot removed, and was otherwise healthy as a horse—though he did have to adjust his Saturday morning ritual and excise the shirtless detail and sunning portion. He added heavy-duty sunscreen and a non-negotiable Cubbies hat, but kept at it pretty much the same, just relocating his lawn chair back beneath the shade. My dad would visit my college house and not remark on the lawn—criticism isn’t his style—but I know he saw that I'd let it erupt into chaos.

It wasn't until I was ravaged by heartbreak, in the way only 21-year-olds can be, that I finally waded through the weeds. With wild abandon, I hacked and ripped and tore the dichondra intruders from my leased lot. It felt unbelievably good gently pulling a plant head, following its widening, whitening network underground, and yanking the whole thing clear. Gone. Done. Same for kudzu braiding itself through chain links and between boards in the backyard shed. After sitting still all day at school, pouring over media law and soon-to-be-outdated AP Style quizzes, it felt almost redemptive to be moving and be active and feign progress. It was something Bad I had the power to evict. It felt like purging.

I was beginning to get it, the art of it all. My dad, in his productivity, was also quieting a brain noisy with anxieties, responsibilities, and uncertainty; forcing the machine was automatic and calming. 

The next few months I lived in that house, the responsibility of lawn maintenance was mine. (Sans mower, at least. I was 21. Not a magician.) It was a sporadic effort reserved for dire moods, but it was a start. After graduation, I spent several years in apartments without yards inching up the East Coast. But each visit to my childhood home heralded a Saturday morning with that fresh smell: recently axed turf. In my mid-20s an allergist diagnosed me with a severe allergy to the outdoors, grass in particular. Not that it mattered when I circled the cul-de-sac on a borrowed bike during these visits, huffing the sweet aroma. The extra snot slicking my throat was worth it.

This past July, I bought a house of my own. It is just as modest as my childhood one, but Craftsman-style with a slightly bombastic porch exception. Shortly after closing, my parents visited to help me settle. My dad unloaded an electric lawn mower, saved from a curbside trash pile, and bestowed it upon me. A pit of nerves sat in my stomach: It had been a minute since I had a weeding therapy session, but I’d never actually mowed a lawn myself. Beside the fact I usually don’t like doing anything I’m not immediately good at, I was afraid of whirring blades so close to my feet. (Plus, there was that one movie in which a kid gets hit in the eye with a renegade rock while mowing. That was traumatizing. I cannot remember the name of the movie, which is apparently a common truth of the internet.)

My father offered lessons over and over during his week-long stay, but I rebuffed each time, secretly banking on landing a ~male companion~ to whom I could defer such eye-threatening work. A couple offers revealed themselves, but shirking such responsibilities felt grossly teenage and manipulative. But once the zoysia sod eventually inched past ankle-high, I knew it was time to get over my fear. The following Saturday morning, I put on the closest cap—though its insignia was in praise of a cheese festival, not a baseball team. (Sorry, dad. Still, though, it felt like the midwest vibes were there.) I charged the machine outside—its orange cord stretched for yards and turned into an obstacle course itself, kinda like extreme vacuuming but outside. But I persevered.

Over time, tending to my lawn has organically evolved into regular practice, not just one reserved for breakups or miraculous hangover-free mornings. Putting in work to keeping the land I own trimmed, the shrubs managed, and the weeds minimal anchors me. It’s a consistent to-do breaking up the stretches of disarray otherwise inherent in young adulthood. Although maintaining my lawn allows me to masquerade as responsible, I find its highest value is in the assertion of control—however minor—this task allows me to feel over my at times haphazard life; and then there's the ever-comforting Zen of this routine. The rewards of tending to a yard might not be that flashy; not unlike being a Cubs fan, being loyal and patient with lawn maintenance might yield no results other than the knowledge that you gave it everything you had and another spring is always just around the corner. (Or, you know, maybe once every 108 years, something really, really amazing will happen after all.)

Autumns in Atlanta rank far cooler than any Tallahassee season. After I tend to my yard, I recuperate indoors. Though I make a point to do so in the warmth of a sunny window. At least for now.