by Kersten Campbell, author of the humor book “Confessions of a Completely Insane Mother”
It was the year of the Lawnmower Man. Or at least the year I was finally going to get one…a little one, at least. I could hardly wait. My son had turned eleven, the magical age when my husband had promised to pass the sacred lawn mowing torch down to the next generation. Finally, there would be someone to keep the lawn trimmed when my husband went on his long business trips.
My son had been looking forward to this event for nearly eleven years. My husband had made sure of that. He, who had taken upon himself the devout guardianship of the 37,987 or so blades of grass surrounding our ranch-style dwelling, had been building up each child’s enthusiasm for this great responsibility since the day they were born.
“You should never mow the same way twice,” he would whisper to the newborn baby as the doctors worked on stitching me up from the birth. “You can get ruts in your lawn….and watch out for crabgrass,” he would shout, eyes wide, scaring Moo with his intensity. Then, when Moo would cry, he would feel bad for scaring the child and whisper words of comfort. “There, there. It scares me, too. But don’t worry. They’ve got pre-emergent herbicides that’ll take care of just about anything.”
And so, it was with great anticipation that my son waited for his eleventh birthday, the day he would be ready to take over the hallowed responsibility of caring for the painstakingly tended sea of emerald in our front yard, not to mention it would be his first chance to legitimately wield a power tool. (We won’t talk about previous illegitimate power tool wielding attempts).
Unfortunately, as with all highly anticipated events, we ran into a little problem.
“Honey,” said my husband over the phone when the day finally arrived. His voice sounded desperate. “I’ve got a late meeting. I won’t be able to come home in time to teach our son to mow the lawn. He was so looking forward to it.”
“No problem,” I said, flinging clean dishes from the dishwasher into the cupboard willy nilly. “You don’t have to worry. I’ll just get out old Mr. Ugly and teach him myself.” Mr. Ugly was a giant, loud, ancient, cantankerous lawn mower passed down to us from the previous owner of our house. My husband had a strange attachment to the grumpy old power tool despite its reluctance to do such things as ‘start’ and ‘move forward’. Whenever I teased him about it, his frequent reply was that we couldn’t buy a new one lest we offend the lawn and lose some of our good turf growing Karma.
“I don’t know…,” my husband hesitated. “Have you ever mowed a lawn before?”
“Tons of times! Well, I’ve cut the boys’ hair often enough with the clippers. The same principles apply, right? ” I said, throwing a plastic lid like a Frisbee into a drawer across the room.
“What do you mean, the same principles apply?” said my husband, his voice suddenly tight.
There was a thunderous crash when I missed the drawer and sent the lid flying into the glassware cupboard.
“What was that?” cried my husband.
“Oops…he-he. You silly kids,” I said to my youngest two children who came in to see what all the noise was about. They gave me a confused stare. “I’ve gotta go,” I said over the choking noise of my husband’s protestations. “The kids need me. I’ll let you know how it goes.”
Late that afternoon my son and I found ourselves staring down Mr. Ugly in the middle of the driveway. It stared back at us with its seedy chipped red paint and its gaping jaw. The curved metal in front was bent upwards in a menacing sneer from a previous argument with a giant cherry tree, and one of the cutting blades stuck out from under it like a wicked front tooth.
“Do you know how to start it?” I asked my son, whispering so as not to disturb Mr. Ugly’s peaceful slumber.
He looked at me. “You’re supposed to know how to start it. You’re the one teaching me, remember?”
“I do, I do.” I said after clearing my throat a few times. “If there’s one thing I know about, it’s how to start a silly lawn mower.” Gingerly, I tiptoed close enough to lean down and reach the pull cord. I pulled back hard, and Mr. Ugly belched a great ball of thick black smoke and tried to jerk my arm out of its socket before I could release the cord, as if he had been offended by my remarks. Then he was silent. This process was repeated twelve more times before my son finally interrupted.
“Dad pushes that red button forty-six times, turns around twice, and spits over his shoulder before he pulls the string,” he said.
“I knew that,” I said, rubbing my shoulder. “I was just testing your memory. How come it took you so long to remember?”
I made my son push the red button eighty-nine times and spit twice just for good measure, and this time, when I pulled on the cord, Mr. Ugly roared to life with a thunderous bang that sounded like gunfire, sending Harold, our neighbor who was trimming his Roses, diving behind a Forsythia bush for cover.
My son’s eyes lit up at this display of raw power. “When can I do it? Can I push it now?” he begged.
“Only after” I said, raising my index finger, “I give you some professional lawn mowing tips. “Now…the great thing is Mr. Ugly is one of the first of the self-propelled lawn mowers… you just push down on this handle and…” with a great lurch and surprising agility for an old man, Mr. Ugly took off toward the street, yanking my feet out from underneath me and dragging me behind. A startled jogger began to sprint as he saw us coming for him down the steep hill that led to the main road. Startled out of my wits, I forgot to let go, and I managed to skid behind Mr. Ugly as it chased the jogger down the hill, bounced off an R.V. tire, veered left into a raspberry patch, busted through two sheets on a clothesline, and mowed over the top of someone’s private hedge.
Then, perhaps hearing the insults yelled at him by our fussy neighbor, Harold, Mr. Ugly swung left again and mowed straight for the trembling Forsythia bush, sending flying projectiles in Harold’s direction as it deliberately gobbled up rocks, tree roots, and small toys in its path. Covering his head with his arms, Harold ran screaming into his house, but there was no need for panic, because Mr. Ugly’s progress was suddenly halted by the same gigantic cherry tree that had given him his first ugly scars.
My son loped over to me from the driveway. “Dad says you’ve got to show Mr. Ugly whose boss,” he said, peeling my remains from the foot of the tree.
“That’s just what I was doing,” I said, pulling a twig from between my front teeth, “by steering him into the cherry tree.”
Using wisdom gleaned from my vast experience of five minutes with the lawn mower, I suddenly decided that the best way to teach my son would be to coach him from the safety of the front porch. I handed over Mr. Ugly and retreated to the sidelines. I tried to think of my most sage lawn mowing wisdom.
“Don’t be boring and mow everything the same height!” I yelled at him over Mr. Ugly’s roar. “Be bold. Make some designs as you go. Stripes would be pretty, don’t you think? Or maybe a smiley face!”
Just then my husband walked up. “My lawn!” he cried, pulling on the ends of his hair. “What have you done to my beautiful lawn?”
I looked out over the expanse of mutilated tree roots and chewed up yard toys, and the great bald spot leading up to the new slashes in the trunk of the giant cherry tree, and I repeated the age old wisdom that every mother tells her child after a particularly bad haircut.
“Don’t worry. Just give it a few weeks…it’ll grow out.”