Grass Roots

After my father died I made a decision that would have greatly disturbed him: I hired somebody to do my yard work.
Mow Heir: The author at home with his father on the well-kept turf in Brownsville in 1967.

It was a game I played when I was little and wasn’t allowed to be outside while my father was working in the yard. I remember watching him from the front window and then following him from window to window inside our small house as he pushed the mower to the backyard, around the bougainvilleas, then the ebony, then the orange tree, disappearing for a moment behind the grapefruit tree, then reappearing next to the mesquite and his work truck. I used to knock on the windowpane when he was close by, but after a while I realized the machine was too loud and he probably wasn’t going to look up, considering how intent he was in maintaining the razor-sharp lines across the lawn. Still, I followed him, just in case. My father didn’t have the biggest house on the block or the newest car in the driveway, but he did have a yard he took care of every week, and somehow, when he was plowing one way and then another under that merciless South Texas sun, this seemed to be enough for him.

Other than watching the Astros lose, my father had no real hobbies. The yard was it. After mowing he would kneel down on a rectangular strip of carpet and cleave the grass along the edge of the sidewalk leading from the street to the front porch with a fourteen-inch knife. Then he’d do the grass along the curb. To him, the world was divided into two kinds of people: those who took care of their own property and those who hired other people to take care of their property. For a man who owned one suit and had few occasions to wear it, the yard was a chance to present another part of himself, if only to those neighbors who happened to drive by and admire his work.

One day when I was seven years old a man named Jose Angel came to our back door asking if there was any yard work he could do. He had just crossed over from Mexico and was hoping to send money back to his family. My father invited him inside to eat lunch, and the man sat on the edge of his chair in the kitchen, his face up close to the plate, the fork clutched in his fist as though it were a twig he’d picked up in the yard. They didn’t talk until afterward, and this was mainly about the lack of rain and how it was affecting the grass. The next day my father helped him find work and a place to live, but he never once let him mow his yard. Sure, he asked the man for a hand the time he needed help digging out a tree stump after a big hurricane and later retrieving a dead possum and its babies from under the house. But otherwise, his yard was his yard.

After he turned ninety, my father fell and broke his hip while working in the yard and had to be moved into a nursing home. I would call him every couple days. Sometimes we talked about his physical therapy, sometimes about whatever hope of going home the doctor was giving him, sometimes about what kind of soup they had served that day in the dining room. I told him my wife and I were expecting our first baby and that we had just bought a larger house in Austin, but I knew a man stuck in a nursing home was only so interested in hearing about monthly visits to the obstetrician and rising interest rates. By the time my son was born, my father had been living in the home for three years, and there seemed to be fewer and fewer things for us to talk about. His life was growing fainter and mine was unfolding before me.

So we talked about yards: his old one, my new one. We talked about the rain or lack of it, the best time of day to water, when to use fertilizer, and the new lawn mower I’d just bought. I had researched the various models on Consumer Reports and finally settled on a Cub Cadet push mower, school bus yellow, with a built-in mulcher and an attachable bag for the yard clippings. He liked the idea of the attachable bag, but he wasn’t sure what I would need the mulcher for if I was taking care of the grass the way I was supposed to.

“And where do you think you’re going to store it, this new machine?” he wanted to know.

“In the garage,” I said.

“And if someone takes it?”

“Who’s going to take it from the garage?”

“Who’s going to take it?” he said. “People walking by, that’s who.”

I began to explain to him that our new house was in one of the safer neighborhoods in Austin, not anything like our old neighborhood, in Brownsville, where iron bars on the doors and windows were standard fixtures. Then I realized he thought my garage was a carport, open on all sides, and not a two-car garage (with an electric door opener even). No one in our old neighborhood had an actual garage.

“We have a little room where I keep the tools,” I said. “I can keep it inside there, locked up.” I failed to mention that the little room was really just a large closet inside the garage.

He had kept his machine locked inside the utility room behind the house. His was a fire-engine-red push mower with a side discharge that he’d bought at Sears. He checked the oil level each time he mowed the lawn. Afterward he would tip the mower on its side to scrape loose any clumps of grass that might be stuck to the blades or the housing or the side discharge, then do the same with any dirt or clippings that might have gathered on the deck or in the tiny grooves on

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