It occurred to me last week that one day soon Noodle will have his first day of school and I’ll be a proud papa, misty-eyed holding his hand, and he his lunchbox, down the path to his first classroom. The moment I let go and he walks through the door with his friends, everything changes. Mostly me. For as sublime a thought as this is, what really occurred to me is that one day I’ll live a prouder moment when I watch him mow his first lawn.
I was thirteen when my grandfather showed me around the lawnmower, older than me, a 1969 crank-start Briggs & Stratton with a Chevy-orange deck kicked up and scraped from a decade and a half of throwing rocks and sticks and soda cans and fishing lures that shouldn’t have been in the grass in the first place. It had a hinged handle you’d flip 180 degrees to reveal a knob you’d use to crank. Under the housing was a gear on a clock spring and a coil-spring loaded switch that would hold the gear in place until you released it with a flick of a lever next to the choke. When released, the potential energy stored in the clock spring would actualize in a clacking whirrrr that fired the engine, ideally to a smooth idle, though it typically took two tries at the crank. I didn’t mind. I loved the clicking and the attention.
There was a pattern to be followed on the lawn: a square with the side chute faced inward so you’d end up with one pile of clippings in the dead center of the yard. The first time out, Grampie watched me from the back step, arms folded across his chest, his dirty tan fishing hat shading his eyes, stern as a German, clean shaven but a gruff man all around. I always felt he was judging me.
At the time, I imagined he was glad to see someone else doing the lawn, even though he had little else to do but supervise. I simply mowed, happy to be trusted and occupied and growing up as fast as I could.
When I think back now, I’m not so sure he was glad to see me aging out of a complaining little kid into an angry adolescent. I think he was proud to have been part of a little boy operating a big lawnmower on a muggy summer afternoon, working out the pattern that’ll get the job done, as everyone in the family has done for generations past and will for generations to come, considering how well this is going.
I had not, in his eyes, shifted from liability to asset – from six-year-old lawn-destroyer to teenaged lawn-maintainer. Turns out he didn’t think that way. I hadn’t shifted columns on the family balance sheet. I had grown up, but was still the same the little boy he loved in his peculiar and brusque old fashioned way, teaching me lessons and showing me how to learn, just as my last summer before first grade, age five, when he taught me setback at the kitchen table. We kept a month-long score card and he always let me win, playing off his losses as bad luck meeting superior skill, because that’s the kind of man he wanted me to become.
He only got to watch me mow the lawn three years before he died. He usually stood at the kitchen window, partly covered by the sheer and faded yellow curtain that my grandmother had picked out before she died and I was born. He wasn’t hiding. There was no mystery. There was always a cold glass of water at my spot on the kitchen table and a freshly shuffled pack of cards between us. I had never been a family liability.
I’d give it all if he could see me now, 25 years since he’s gone. And he could see his great-grandson, maybe watch him from the front porch, arms still folded, still grumpy as ever, rarely speaking anything but correction. His silence was his kindness, I know now. And I figure if I’d have asked him for advice when we found out Noodle was due, he’d have told me plain and simple “make sure you show him how to mow a good lawn.”