I thought I'd share a story about my days as a single mom. Although this was most definitely NOT a funny story at the time, for some reason people just laugh uproariously whenever they hear this story. I think this happened in July of 2001, shortly before Bill moved down from Canada.
I was surprised to learn that the hardest part about being single was mowing my own yard. I had literally never even touched a lawn mower until age 30, when I was forced to learn how to operate our crappy mower. My dad came over on a Saturday and taught me how to start it (with a minimum of three very vigorous pulls), how to push it in straight rows, and how to unclog the blades each time the motor died--about every three minutes when the weeds got too long.
The first time I mowed, it took me a couple of hours. The blisters were so deep that they actually bled. I was covered in a layer of dirt that clung to my sweaty body and made muddy rivers in the tub when I showered. Worst of all, the weedeater flung giant grasshoppers against my legs! When that happened , I let out a girly scream and then felt the tears trickling from the corners of my eyes as I contemplated the months and months of mowing that I could look forward to.
When I told Bill the sorry story that evening, he laughed heartily, and I had to laugh, too, in spite of myself.
Now, I will admit that I was exceptionally wimpy and whiny about it, but you have to understand that my lot was not your average yard. A year or two before, my ex-husband and his best friend had rented a backhoe and dug up most of the topsoil in the front yard. The plan was to bring in better dirt and lay some sod, but we ended up moving out to the country to run our convenience store, and the job never got finished. So the front yard was mainly dust and rocks and some very hardy weeds. The mower would throw out choking clouds of dust and hurl the occasional rock. Oh, and there were also several mounds of ferocious fire ants who were particularly vicious when I ran them over with the lawnmower. I always meant to watch for them, but I usually forgot because I was so preoccupied with feeling sorry for myself.
The section in the backyard between the house and the fence was even worse. This was the destination of the topsoil that had been removed from the front yard. There were three large mounds, about three feet tall, and they were covered in weeds that were often waist-high. It was impossible to push the lawn mower back there, so the only way to cut the weeds was with the weedeater, which I despised. Whenever I went back there, I cowered in fear waiting for snakes to strike at my ankles.
I mowed every Wednesday evening and every Saturday morning, and I never stopped dreading it. I'd get up at 7:00 on Saturday to beat the heat, but it was still around 90 degrees most days.
After a few months, a Good Samaritan suddenly began mowing my yard. I was overjoyed to come home from work one Friday and find it all mowed, even the jungle mounds. It took me awhile to discover the identity of my mysterious benefactor.
I stayed home sick one day and woke to the sound of a lawnmower in my backyard. I hurried downstairs and found my neighbor, Sam. I thanked him profusely, but he just smiled shyly and said it was no trouble. He and his wife Freida had been doing all sorts of little things to look after me and three-year-old Ethan ever since the divorce. This was the kindest thing anyone had ever done for me, and it brought tears to my eyes. I vowed to pay him back somehow if I could think of a way.
Sam and his teenage boys continued to mow my yard for several weeks, and I reveled in my Saturday morning sleeps and my soft, smooth hands. But one Saturday morning in July, I took a look at my yard and decided I was going to have to drag out the lawnmower again; maybe Sam had been sick or on vacation.
As I dutifully mowed the weeds and dandelions in the front yard, I noted that Sam's usually meticulously groomed grass was shockingly long. He must not have had time for his own grass either. A little thought began to grow in my mind and take root: I needed to return the favor and mow Sam's front yard.
I carried on a mental argument with myself.
"But I'm so hot and tired!"
"It would only take another 20 minutes, and I'm already sweaty and dirty."
"I just want to take a shower and relax on the couch!"
"It's the least I could do. Think of all the times Sam and his boys have mowed for me."
"Oh, but I don't want to!"
"What would Jesus do?"
"Oh, all right! I'll do it." It was as if I'd heard the Voice of God, and there was no arguing.
I pushed the mower next door and started on the long, lush grass--which was maybe 3/4 of a foot high. In no time, I started to feel really good about what I was doing. But then the thick grass overwhelmed the mower, and it stalled. I pulled gobs of damp grass out and flung it aside, and then I laboriously started the mower again. I repeated this ritual every few feet, and I alternated between feeling sorry for myself and feeling very righteous.
As I completed my first row, just to the sidewalk, I surveyed my work and realized something wasn't right. Instead of a nice, smooth path, the mower had left a dry, brown trail. Sam had Bermuda grass, which was obviously quite different from the St. Augustine I'd grown up with (and the weeds that populated my current lawn). Was this normal, I wondered? Maybe it would just look like that until he watered it again, I decided.
In any case, there was such a stark contrast between the mowed and the unmowed sections that I felt I had no choice but to continue. So I plowed on, mowing a few feet, unclogging the blades, and restarting the motor.
I'd made it halfway up one side of the lawn when the front door opened. Sam's eyes were first perplexed, then angry. "What are you DOING??" he spluttered as soon as he had command of his voice.
"I'm mowing your yard," I said meekly. "It was getting really long, and I wanted to help you since you've been mowing my yard so often."
"But you've ruined it!" he cried. "Just... just, put the mower away. You've done enough!"
"But I have to clean up the mess," I murmured, eyeing the tufts of grass that littered the sidewalk.
"Just go!" Sam said gruffly.
I actually felt scared. Sam and Freida both worked as night guards at the county jail, and up until Sam had started mowing my yard, I'd been a little intimidated at the sight of him in his uniform. (Freida was never scary with her short stature and her ready smile.) At this moment, Sam was pretty terrifying.
I turned around wordlessly, my shoulders hunched, and pushed the mower back to my garage, sobs catching in my throat. I didn't even bother to shower before I collapsed on the couch and wept. The injustice of it! I'd wanted to return a favor, and instead I'd destroyed Sam's lovingly cultivated lawn.
After a few minutes, I resolutely grabbed a broom and headed back over to sweep up the mess, which was untouched. I sobbed as I worked, but I was determined to at least clean up the shorn grass.
Freida opened the door and said, "Please, honey, just leave it. Sam didn't mean any harm. He was just surprised. Now go on home."
"No," I said. "I m-made the m-mess, and I'm gonna c-clean it up."
She went back inside and I finished sweeping. Freida's kindness was even more upsetting than Sam's anger, and I just couldn't stop crying. I curled up on the couch in the fetal position and sobbed for at least 30 minutes. Little Ethan kept patting my head and asking, "What's wrong, Mommy?"
"I'm okay," I said. "I just need to cry for awhile."
Eventually I took a shower and got myself dressed for an afternoon wedding, for the nephew of my dear friend Angela. At the reception, she immediately noticed my puffy eyes and asked what was wrong. As I sadly recounted the story to her and her husband, they couldn't help laughing. I laughed, too, through my tears.
I asked, "But what happened? Why did the grass look like that?"
"You scalped his grass," Peter explained. "You can't cut Bermuda that short. You needed to raise the blades on your mower."
"You can do that?" I asked. He laughed again. "Will it come back?" I asked hopefully.
"Probably not, I'm afraid."
Peter was right. That grass was dead for the rest of the year. It was only about a quarter or a third of the lawn, but it seemed to defeat Sam's spirit. The rest of the grass soon became unkempt, and the weeds in my yard started to encroach on his yard. Every time I looked at that yard, I was pierced with regret.
I made a decorated cookie that said, "I'm sorry!" and I brought Ethan along to help me deliver it. (No one could resist my sweet little son.) Freida exclaimed at my kindness, but Sam didn't say much.
I suppose he must have forgiven me eventually. To his credit, he continued to mow my grass until Bill moved down and took over that duty. But his grass NEVER came back.
I've driven through the neighborhood several times in the five years since we moved, and the grass is still weedy and thin. I wonder if Sam still thinks about that day, and if he ever learned to laugh about it--or if he still laments, as I do, that no good deed goes unpunished.