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Turf Battle

What lawn care taught me about independence and relationships

The first time I mowed my own lawn, I used the small reel mower that my parents had passed off to me, a hand-me-down housewarming gift. I went carefully up and down the rows of my tiny lawn, trying to overlap the wheel marks, appreciating the quiet click-click-click of the blades. When I was done, I stood back on the sidewalk and surveyed my accomplishment: running the length of the lawn, right down the middle, was one, tall, thin strip that I had somehow neglected. My god, I thought, I’ve given my lawn a Brazilian.

The Midwest is filled with people who care passionately about their lawns. But have they had the same sort of intimate experience that I’ve had with mine?

A few weeks after that first mowing, I was on my second date with a guy I’ll call Brad. For our first date, we’d met up at a bar for happy hour. This time, he offered to pick me up. He wanted to see my new house, and even seemed interested in the garage. “Two mowers,” Brad said, looking at the reel mower and the ancient gas-powered lawn mower that the former owner had left behind, a contraption so old, I liked to joke, that it played “Ragtime Gal” when you started it up. I explained to him that I was afraid to use it. In a show of muscle, he got it going right away, and proceeded to mow my entire lawn while I went inside and got him a beer.

The next day, when my friend asked me about our date, I said, “He mowed my lawn.”
Her eyes grew wide. “Wow. On your second date?”

“I’m really talking about the lawn,” I said.

“It’s still impressive,” she said.

In the end, Brad and I weren’t quite the right match, but the way he took charge with my lawn was appealing, and something I decided to keep looking for in a mate. And yes, I’m still talking about the lawn.

The following summer, I had shoulder surgery and my arm was in a sling for a month. It honestly hadn’t occurred to me that after surgery I wouldn’t be able to push the mower with one hand. The guy who lived across the street from us growing up only had one arm and he had always done his own lawn; but I now realized that he’d used his other, prosthetic arm to guide the mower.

A week or so after surgery, on a Saturday morning, I woke up to see my neighbor pushing his mower across both our lawns. Maybe it was the Vicodin, but his generosity brought me to tears. In the weeks that followed, various friends showed up, dragging their kind husbands along, who gamely took care of the grass.

Lawn maintenance is a lot like golf. They are both singular endeavors that are strangely public. The neighbors notice your lawn and make judgments about your character based on its upkeep in the same way that the guy on the next fairway notices your crazy slice and gives you a dirty sidelong glance as you slink over to retrieve it. My golf swing mirrors my other personal hurdles: I have trouble with follow-through; I tend to collapse under pressure. Likewise, my relationship with my lawn mirrors the way I approach relationships in general: I once thought I always needed to be independent. I was strong. I should do things on my own. Before I had the lawn, it never would have occurred to me to ask a boyfriend for help. Or more accurately, I didn’t have the courage to ask. The lawn has taught me that sometimes it’s okay to lean on someone else.

I was dating someone recently who offered to mow the lawn while I was out of town. Then he changed his mind and said, “You know, baby, now that I think about it, well, maybe not. I’m really busy.”

When I told my dad that we’d broken up, he said, “Yeah. I never liked the sound of that guy.”

Shannon Olson is the author of two novels, Welcome to My Planet and Children of God Go Bowling. She lives in St. Paul.


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