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The Great Lawn War

October 25, 2014
eggplant george

George tending to his kingdom

My father came, they say, from a long line of gardeners reputedly once in the service of French royalty but later exiled to England for some unnamed transgression. Their craft was perpetuated through the generations that followed and then continued in America when a single branch of the Daborn clan ventured across the Atlantic to New Jersey. There James Daborn became a gardener to the rich folk in northern Bergen County. His second son, George, was my father. He saw to it that the tradition was upheld, for no king had grounds more tenderly cared for than that of our little brick house on New Bridge Road.

The lawn there was the site of my first explorations of the world, cautiously challenging the borders of my blanket to venture forth on the green expanse before me. It was the field of glory during many a summer’s day of make-believe and the hunting ground of lightning bugs in the sultry star-filled New Jersey nights. Most of all it was my father’s refuge, the place where he would retreat from all the hardships of his life, spending hours edging with the precision of a sculptor, stooping over the enemy weeds and prying them loose with an old screwdriver, standing with the hose patiently watering every last corner in the fading evening light. The sound of the mower and the smell of fresh-cut grass were a constant backdrop during my life at this house. Somewhere in the blur of those years gone by, the War began.

Next door to us lived the Talleksons. Astrid, a hearty Norwegian outdoorswoman, was the matriarch and absolute ruler of her domain. Her husband Teddy, a short white-haired man with emphysema, seemed to be relegated to watching over their frenetic dog, Trooltz. Since my father was half Swedish and therefore a fellow Scandanavian, one would have thought this to be an ideal situation, but that turned out to be far from the case.

Our property ended a good four feet before the edge of the Tallekson’s driveway, but the lawn extended beyond that imaginary line to their driveway cement, a natural border if ever there was one. This section of grass was logically an extension of our own lot, but it actually belonged to the Talleksons. Who, then, was to mow this strip of lawn? ”It’s just an extra couple of feet! Why not just mow it?” That was my mother’s sentiment (although she was not the one to mow the lawn).

Indeed my father had for years given that strip the same devoted nurturing that he had to the rest of our lawn. But for some reason, perhaps the result of an escalation in the already existing though undefined (at least to me) tension with the Talleksons because of some unneighborly incident (Trooltz had bitten my sister, after all), my father decided that he would no longer be responsible for what was, after all, not his to begin with. So when my father would mow, he would end at the official property line rather than the Tallekson’s driveway, leaving the final few feet uncut. It was as if there were a miniature green cliff marking the beginning of the Tallekson’s land, thus causing the imaginary line to become a real one, and the War was on.

Astrid Tallekson apparently decided upon the tactic of just letting the strip go, no doubt figuring that my father’s innermost gardener’s ethic would not allow any lawn, especially a piece so intimately connected with his own, to go untended. But he resisted, and the strip grew wildly. The grass cliff rose; the battle line had been unequivocally drawn.

Soon, either through the complaints of other neighbors, the intervention of the town fathers, or Astrid’s own considerable horticultural conscience, she did cut the contested space, but never in synch with my father’s mowing. Thus the dividing grass cliff continuously reversed, and the battle line remained.

Time did not wilt the resolve of my father. It did, however, take from him his strength. The beloved reel mower was replaced by a power one, the frequency of mowings grew less and less, and when the stroke stole from him the ability to care for his once impeccable kingdom, it was time for me to take over.

The intrusion of life’s daily obligations shaped the time I could spend driving up the Turnpike to my father’s house, but I went when I could. He would watch as I mowed, always in the precise methodical way that he approved of. The first time I got to the disputed border, I too left the small green cliff. I don’t know if he thought I would have, not knowing if it was something of significance to me. My father could no longer speak, but he did not have to. I saw in his eyes a mixture of pride and happiness. He knew that his War would be carried on.

It was. After my father could no longer leave the house, he saw it, smiling as he stood with his walker by the front door. And after he was gone, his line of demarkation stood.

It’s been years since my father died. I no longer mowed his lawn; a local outfit took care of that. Young guys — they did a nice job, my mother said. I hadn’t really bothered checking, but they probably mowed right up to the Tallekson’s driveway. Not that it mattered. She had since departed this life as well. But I do remember the last time I did mow my father’s lawn.

It was not out of obligation that I did this task (certainly not always the case), but rather with a sense of reverence, a final communion with my father. As I crossed back and forth, mowing the straight rows and then recrossing them in the manner that pleased him, I thought back to the time when this was no more that a bothersome chore. The lawn had never been in my charge when I was young, only occasionally pitching in as forced labor, usually manning the hated rake. Still, the family secrets of good lawn care were taught to me (use a reel mower, border cut first, lift and spin to catch the edges, always crosscut). I did pinch hit from time to time, though reluctantly. My father’s penchant for manicured lawns was not shared by me. There was a world out there waiting to be explored — no contest for mere grass.

But I was now grown, and that growth had brought change, slow and torturous, I’m afraid, for my father, who I think never really understood the resentment and rebellion that filled his son through so many years. I had now come full circle, longing to be and do what I once rejected, and I found myself with the lawn once again.

As I maneuvered down the Border creating the grass precipice for the last time, I felt my tears falling, falling on my father’s lawn, mixing with the clippings and the lawn moths that flitted up and settled back with my passing just as they had always done when as a child I watched my father mow. I hoped that somehow he knew that it would end this way. I hoped he knew his son would carry forth out of love and oversee his wish, the one wish that I knew of and that we had shared at his life’s end, and it was as though all his unfulfilled dreams and unconquered hardships were within my power to make right on this day. It seemed a fitting tribute, one worthy in its own small way to mark the last battle of the Great Lawn War.

When I was done, I stood on the front sidewalk and looked at the lawn, the soft evening sun glinting its approval.

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