Labor of Love

A mentor works through his grief

If writing is my career, landscaping is my vocation. I’ve worked on and off as a laborer for Kern Lawn and Landscaping in St. Paul for the past decade. The patriarch of the company is Pappy Kern: 78 years old, tall, and sturdy, with gnarled hands and squint lines dug in hard around his blue eyes. Inside Pappy’s grizzled exterior, however, is a man with so much twinkling charm he’s like a Carhartt-clad Santa. He gently teaches us, with unending patience, the skills we need to become better workers and men: the proper way to grease a Bobcat, the tricks to changing a chainsaw blade. His mellow demeanor has helped me dial down my ruffian tendencies.

Pappy devotes his time to teaching us life skills, too. Recently we were at the Kern shop splitting a pile of wood, and I noticed Pappy wrestling with the heaviest pieces first.

“Why are you doing that when all the little logs are closer to the splitter?” I asked him.

“Always start with the heaviest logs,” he answered. “After you finish those, it’s gravy from there.”

Pappy would know. He’s been carrying heavy loads, both physical and emotional, his whole life—none greater than the death of his son, Mark. I’d learned of Mark’s death from others at Kern, how Pappy had taken him hunting and accidentally shot him. The tragic tale was told to me in snippets, tiny crumbs that never amounted to any hard reality. And in all the time Pappy and I had spent together, plowing snow, tethered together by coffee, camaraderie, and endless conversation, the subject had never once surfaced.  

This past winter, though, Pappy’s beloved wife passed away from cancer. The loss caused him to become more reflective, gnawing on the stories of his past. Eventually, he asked me to help him write his memoir.

That’s how I found myself one recent afternoon at his modest two-story home near the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, where he has lived for more than 40 years. The smell of slow-cooked beef permeated the kitchen. I hung my jacket on a coat rack overstuffed with flannels, and we moved into the living room.

 Pappy took a seat under two photos of Mark, and I was instantly rattled. Pappy, however, seemed unfazed. “I’d like to begin with the story about Mark,” he said warmly.

“We don’t need to start with that story if you don’t want to,” I replied nervously, not wanting Pappy to feel pushed into reliving the experience—and not sure if I was ready to hear about it, either.

“I don’t squirm from the hard stuff. Like I said with them heavy logs,” Pappy said, then dove in.

It was 1977. Mark was 14, and he and Pappy were up north grouse hunting. The sky was covered in clouds. “Not a stitch of sun,” Pappy recalled. Mark asked Pappy if he could go ahead and ran up an incline in the woods.

“A grouse flew out in the space between us,” Pappy said. “And you gotta be quick when shooting grouse. So, I raised my gun and shot—and hit Mark.”

I glanced up at Mark’s portrait and stared at the image: a young boy, grinning widely, thrilled to be hunting with his dad. As a father myself, I couldn’t help but think of my son, Murphy, who had to have emergency heart surgery a couple years ago; I came very close to having a memorial picture of my own. I suddenly felt acutely aware of life’s fragility—of how quickly things can turn on a surgical centimeter or the slight incline of a trail in the woods.

“For years, I was absolutely devastated,” Pappy continued, slow and steady. “After time, though, I became more accepting. His death opened me up to a lot of great things.”

Sitting there next to Pappy, both of us a heap of tears and snot, I recalled a quote I’d read by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross:

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

Pappy is living proof of man’s ability to bear the heavy lifting required to rebuild after a crushing heartbreak. In fact, this very process—this laborious, sometimes torturous act—is at the root of a person so inspiring.

Todd Smith is a Minneapolis writer.