Hey, kids, get off my lawn!

How my father's obsession with his front yard mowed over my childhood

By Vincent Rossmeier

Published June 19, 2009 10:19AM (EDT)

The first friend I lost to my father's lawn obsession was a kid named James, who shared my predilection for Mario Brothers and Gushers. I was 7 years old and, as was the weekend routine, my father had been outside since dawn trimming the grass he had already mowed, spraying the weeds only he could see. When James' father arrived to pick him up from a sleepover, he tried to reverse out of our curvy, precipitously steep driveway. But he failed, as so many parents after him would, his Jeep Grand Cherokee veering onto my father's precious verdant blades as he rounded a corner. The asphalt still slick with rain, James' father tried to correct his mistake but instead screeched in place, the tires' frantic spin turning the cultivated green into mush. A stream of expletives spewed from my father's mouth as he raced toward the devastation. Even now, nearly 20 years later, I can still hear his screams.

Later, I'd find that only about a 7-by-4-foot patch had been destroyed, but that day was my father's Tunguska Event. When the Grand Cherokee finally righted itself, James and his father sped off without so much as a goodbye. From then on, though we were in the same classes, James avoided me. At the end of the semester, his family moved to Colorado. Our teacher said his father had been transferred. But I knew better.

My father remembers the incident differently. "That guy who backed over the grass like 20 or 30 feet and ripped the hell out of the lawn, leaving almost foot-deep ruts -- that was my biggest lawn catastrophe," he recently told me. "It's like somebody taking scissors and ripping a good dress shirt of mine."

American dads have long had an uncomfortably close relationship with their lawns -- it is the very symbol of suburban fatherhood, of the attempt to control and tame our surroundings in an uncertain world -- but I believe my father is a unique case. Born and bred on a dairy farm in rural Wisconsin, he pores over Progressive Farmer and John Deere catalogs the way other dads gaze at Playboy. During my childhood in northern Virginia, our typical family outings involved drives to admire or (gently) deride the landscaping of our neighbors' homes. Every Father's Day, he received a replica Deere; a trip to the town mulch pile was cause for celebration.

In "The Virgin Suicides," one of the greatest books about suburban youth ever composed, Jeffrey Eugenides writes of dads and their home meadows: "We realized that the version of the world they rendered for us was not the world they really believed in, and that for all their caretaking and bitching about crabgrass they didn't give a damn about lawns."

My problem was: My dad did. Why else did I have to spend my childhood Saturdays rising at 6 a.m., sweeping the excess clippings left on the driveway or hand-picking leaves off the grass? (Of those who would dare rake leaves off a humid summer lawn, my father would only say, "They don't know shit from shinola about lawn care.") I suspect many kids retain scarring memories of weekends spent with the weed whacker, but in my own group of classmates, my father's vigilantism was extreme. Other fathers advised on the dangers of drugs and unprotected sex, I was warned only about the costly consequences of mowing the lawn in the same pattern for two consecutive weeks. And none of my friends had to mop the garage on a monthly basis to ensure that the mower tires didn't leave grass prints on the concrete floor. None of them had to remove gravel off other people's driveways because it might get sprayed on our lawn.

"That's to say that you weren't quite as spoiled as some of the other kids your age, the millennium kids," my dad said.

But I wasn't the only one who complained about his fescue fixation.

"Why is your dad so anal about his lawn?" my boss at a construction site asked me on my first day. The Latino craftsmen I worked with that summer would only refer to my father, whose first name is Joseph, as "Loco Jose." There was also one infamous Thanksgiving in the late 1990s. While the rest of America gorged on pie and the Dallas Cowboys' futility, my 9-year-old cousin burst into tears while raking the yard, after my father yelled at him for accidentally taking out a clump of grass.

"I really don't remember that," my father said with a straight face.

Almost every child grows up in a household that more closely resembles "The Simpsons" than "The Cosby Show." Parents are peculiar beasts, prone to love and weirdness in equal measure. Even as adults, few of us can explain why Mom always carried a cup of ice in her purse even in the winter months or why Dad tucked his shirt into his underwear rather than his pants. What makes these eccentricities all the more eccentric is that parents generally refuse to acknowledge that their behavior is unusual. Thus is the case with my father and his lawn. No matter what example I brought up -- how I was only allowed to run our push mower at the lowest speed to avoid creating divots, how he won't use a time-saving riding mower, though he owns one, because "it mats down the grass" -- he stonewalled.

"I don't believe I'm anal about it," he said. "It's no different than someone maintaining an antique car."

What I couldn't figure out was: Why did he care so much about the lawn? It's just grass. Since my father was so reticent, I turned to a different, impartial source: "In everyone there is a creative impulse to nurture something and I don't think that for men, at least in the Western world, there's a lot of tolerance to express that nurturing side," Ben Michaelis, a clinical psychologist practicing in New York City, told me. "Creativity is more acceptable, but nurturing isn't accepted by the society at large. And this is sort of a reasonably sanctioned way to nurture something. In your description of your father, he protects his lawn like a momma bear protects a cub."

It did make a kind of sense. Maybe all this time my father's fastidiousness was really a carefully manicured display of love -- maybe he was nurturing me by nurturing the grass. Could that be why, even at the age of 67, after doting on his lawn for close to 30 years, my dad still gets dewy-eyed when our conversations inevitably turn to fresh sod? "I believe in sod," he said. "I go right to the sod farm, and the sod that I get has just been harvested. It's really wonderful."

I began to see his hobby not so much for the annoyance it has caused me but for the structure and fortitude it provided: My father was the only one in a neighborhood of 24 houses who actually mowed his own lawn and didn't pay someone else to do it for him. This instilled a work ethic in me that proved handy in college and, so far, in a fledgling career.

Asked for her opinion on the matter, my mother wouldn't go on record (in perhaps the ultimate sign I've failed as a journalist), but she did confirm the quality of my dad's handiwork. "I don't want to be quoted on this, it could come back to haunt me," she said. "All I'll say is that his lawn looks better than anyone else's in the neighborhood."

As a young adult, I moved to Manhattan. It was an act of rebellion: The city is not exactly known for its seeds and shrubs outside Central Park. But the profusion of concrete and lack of green wore on me. I found myself longing for a Saturday behind the mower, calmed by the engine's monotonous lullaby. Even the tree-lined streets of Brooklyn weren't quiet or tree-lined enough. After so many years of lamenting my father's lawn love, I've realized I now need to cultivate my own garden, and so my wife and I are moving to the Garden District of New Orleans. I'm not ready for (nor can I afford) a house with a lawn just yet, but perhaps my father's obsession isn't quite as crazy as I always considered it to be.

Such news couldn't make him happier. "Someday you'll look back and you'll say, Dad, we're going to buy a house with a nice lawn," he said. "And then I'll know I was a great dad." 

Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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Fatherhood Father's Day