Growing up, one of the ways my parents showed love to our neighbours was by taking “Mrs C”, an elderly widow who could no longer drive, to church every Sunday. She was a no nonsense, tell it like it is, Ukrainian woman who always smelled like the garlic she grew in her immaculate garden, on her immaculate acre of land. Eventually she aged to the point where, while she still enjoyed weeding and gardening a small plot of land, she no longer cared for lawn care and asked if she could hire me to mow her lawn.
I was around 13 at the time and didn’t make a lot of money babysitting as there was plenty of female competition. Thrilled with the opportunity, I asked my parents if I could take the job. They had no objections as I had mowed our own lawn plenty of times with our old push mower.
My Dad dropped me off at Mrs. C’s house and she took me out to the shed to show me where the rake and lawn mower was. Only, it wasn’t just any lawn mower – it was a lawn tractor. I probably glowed I was so excited.
She had me pull the tractor out and demonstrate that I knew how to use a clutch to change gears. I had just gotten my snow mobile license so I felt pretty confident, listening politely to her explanation of how to engage the blades. I was itching to get going but made sure I was patient and respectful as she talked. Having grown up in an era when a boy my age would already have been driving a full size tractor unsupervised around the family farm, she promptly left me to it and went inside to make tea.
I started at the slowest pace, carefully maneuvering around the garden and compost heap, carving out sections that I mowed down one after the other. Each time I grew more and more confident and sped the tractor up to the next highest gear, completing each fraction of the lawn quicker than the one before. Soon I was working on the front lawn where a row of young Emerald Spruce trees, a little taller that I was, stood next to the ditch by the road. I remembered that I was supposed to take hills straight up and down not sideways so I lined myself up for the first pass and pushed the clutch in to down shift and slow down. The gears ground but didn’t catch. More importantly, neither I nor the lawn tractor slowed down.
Interesting fact – a 1975 Alouette snow mobile allowed one to operate the brakes by squeezing a lever on the handlebars, similar to my mountain bike, the only other vehicle I had ever driven … apparently lawn tractors had some other mechanism …
I had NO IDEA how to stop.
I think the only thing that kept me from speeding up down the hill and crashing into the ditch was the fact that my hands were unconsciously steering me towards the thing I was staring at, willing myself to avoid (much as I’m told happens when people crash into electrical poles when losing control on a gravel road, rather than driving into the field). I eventually stopped, not because the leg pushing the clutch with all my might was doing anything, but because the tree trunk bending before and beneath me finally provided enough force to counter my momentum. The blades screeched a horrible noise as they pulled the tree top from my view and rendered it into so much mulch.
Eventually I broke out of my shock, disengaged the blades and turned the key off. I pushed the tractor backward and stared at a perfectly manicured lawn where moments before a spruce had stood.
It was at that moment that Mrs C decided to bring out a snack break. I was horrified, positive that I would get the tongue lashing I deserved and wondering how I would be able to afford a new tree for her. She set the tray down on the tractor seat, put it into gear so it wouldn’t roll and then handed each of us a cup of tea and a cookie before looking over my work. Both the patch I was staring at in horror and also the section I had already done. When her tea cup was empty she turned to me.
“It looks good back there, especially by the garden. Also, the brake is operated here and stay in the first two gears while mowing.” With that she retrieved the china, picked the tray up, and headed back inside.
What else could I do? I got back on the lawn tractor with fear and trembling and worked out how to mow the rest of the lawn. When I had cleaned off the tractor and put it away I walked around to the front of the house to see her talking with my father. My eyes fell to the ground and I slowly approached them, wondering what they had decided was a suitable punishment.
“So you’ll bring him back again in two weeks at the same time?”
“Sounds good, see you Sunday?”
Then she turned to me, gave me a handshake and when she released it I found our agreed on payment and a $5 tip. I said thank you and she returned to her house.
I joined Dad in the car bemused but slowly found myself releasing my breath. Still, I couldn’t keep myself from staring at the new plot of lawn as we drove by. Dad broke into my reverie
“Huh, does something seem off to you about the hedge?”
I tried very hard to disappear.
I have an idea of some of the insights this experience helped me to discover that I’ll be happy to share in the comments below if a discussion starts. Does anything pop out to you?
Thanks so much for allowing me to share this humiliating part of my youth with you!