Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Keep Off the Grass

Last weekend was prom weekend at my school. One of my students asked me how I spent the day of my prom. Did I get my hair done? My nails? Get ready at a friend's house, take a bunch of pictures? No, I told them, before my junior prom, I just mowed the grass. These young whippersnappers today. They have no idea.

"I am not a child anymore. You need to trust me. It's prom, and I need to do this. I promise I won't get hurt. Now, give me the keys."

It's May, 1991, and my mom and I are fighting, bitterly. A change in the mother-daughter power balance is about to happen, and the air is charged both from the storms moving in and from the electric emotions between a strong-willed 17-year-old girl and her reluctant mother. After a pause in which I am sure I am about to lose, my mother hands me the keys. And I do what every teen girl would do in the same circumstance:

I start up my dad's riding lawnmower.

Things were complicated at home that spring. Dad had fallen spectacularly off the sobriety wagon, foregoing all responsibilities including, but not limited to, basic hygiene and employment. Yet somehow I was at the peak of my high-school success: I had been selected as a Governor's Scholar, won my grade's school-wide essay contest, played The Artful Dodger in Oliver! and, most importantly, had really great hair and had kept a serious boyfriend for over a year. I put those two things together because I am convinced they are related. I knew people suspected my home life was, in the words of Allison in The Breakfast Club, "unsatisfying." But I did not want to confirm this. I felt on the brink of actually getting away and making a decent life for myself and I didn't want any busybody teachers or pesky counsellors finding the skeletons in that particular closet. It was fine if they could smell the corpses, I just didn't want the bones to poke out from under the door.

So when my dad decided that keeping the grass mowed was optional, and mom decided anything not worth dad's time was not worth hers, either, I began to panic. There for all to see was clear evidence that all was not right with the Crankies. Having grass grow to hip-high in a house people actually live in raises a pretty big red flag.

I didn't care about the neighbors. They knew we were screwed up long before. But when my best friend offered to drive to junior prom, I knew that he and his date would see the jungle that had grown around our house and, for the first time, I worried what people might think. That grass had to be mowed.

The problem was that despite my parents being two people who didn't care nearly enough about matters of the home, they cared almost too much about their youngest daughter. Their overly-protective parental restraining order mandated that I was not allowed to come within 5 feet of a working lawnmower.

"You'll cut your toes off on that hill," Dad would say in reference to the steep front hill which had given him several close calls over the years.

"I know a guy whose son got killed when his riding mower flipped and fell on top of him," Mom would say when I suggested I drive Dad's little lawn tractor instead of the death trap that was our ancient push mower. Ah, nothing brings the grisly like a worried mother.

Meanwhile, a warm, wet spring nourished our untended lawn. It grew above our ankles; then to our knees; then to a height where Mom and I thought for sure we were going to get cited by the city. She took a run at the grass one day only to have the mower clog and choke while her smoker's lungs and years of inactivity prohibited her from making any real progress. We feared what might be growing in there; snakes and wolf spiders for sure, for we saw them scurry across our walkway from time to time. Whatever else might have been hiding I hoped I'd never see. My closest girlfriend, who knew my secrets but who never let on like she knew, much to my eternal appreciation, called it my "Children of the Corn yard." She joked that if we didn't do something soon the Corn God was going to start speaking through me and asking for a sacrifice. I was both amused and terrified.

The morning of prom I stopped being amused. The situation had tipped to critical. Before anyone else in the house rose from their hangovers/depressive slumbers, I threw on a pair of old jeans, two pairs of socks, boots, and a pair of winter gloves. The ancient push mower was rusted and I didn't exactly know what tetanus was, but I knew it was a possibility given the conditions. I thought maybe I could get out and start mowing before anyone was the wiser. I did not anticipate not knowing how to start a lawnmower and that riding mowers actually use keys. Mom learned of my scheme pretty quickly when I began rummaging around the house.

"Are you crazy? You're not going out there and mowing. We'll hire someone next week."

"I am being picked up for prom in 6 hours and I can't have people show up and see our yard like this."

"Have them pick you up at the top of the street."

"It's supposed to storm. And I will be wearing a dress and heels. I'm not walking up the street in the rain to get picked up at the corner like a hooker."

We argued. And somehow I won. We figured out how to start both mowers and I was let loose in the wild. I would have felt very grown-up and superior except that I was seriously afraid I might accidentally run over a stray dog or cat or perhaps some small deer that had taken up residence in our own private wilderness refuge.

It was a slow process. I'll never forget the noise the two mowers made as they stuttered and coughed through the high grass--grrrr---chkchkchk---grrrr---chkchkchk--as I walked and rode so slowly I thought for sure I would never get finished and the lawn would just have to have a reverse Mohawk.

4 hours later everything was mowed except for a small portion of the Hill of Death. It would have to do. Once the rain started I had to acknowledge my mother's hand signals from the front door, calling me to just walk it on in. A gallon of water, a hot shower, and some quality time burning my ears off with hot rollers, and I found myself picture-ready on the walkway with Jason and our best friend. I did not and could not invite them in, but from the outside they probably couldn't tell that I had anything other than a semi-normal suburban life. Well, the unnatural mounds of grass clippings might have given something away. But maybe they thought we were making hay.

Several days later my father went to rehab for the umpteenth time and we hired someone to finish the lawn job I had started. As it always did, the listing ship that was my adolescence righted itself. Since I did not die under rotating blades, it became my job over the rest of the summer to help mow the grass. Being trusted to not to kill oneself with heavy equipment does have a downside. I grumbled, but I enjoyed it. At one point I even added a copy of the lawnmower key to my key chain, much to my parents' amusement; I didn't get my real driver's license until August and didn't have a car of my own to drive, so the Craftsman out in the shed was as close as I could come to vehicular independence. I named her "Sally" and threatened to take her with me to college.

For I earned those keys. I fought the lawn. And the lawn did not win.

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