When I was a kid, I dreamed about having a Grandpa and Grandma. Grandpa would take me fishing, tell me stories about the good old days, and give me candy when my parents weren’t looking. Grandma would hold me on her lap and stroke my hair when I was hurt or scared. She’d make pies and cookies, and would always stand up for me when my parents scolded. I didn’t have a Grandpa or Grandma, I had a Grandfather and Grandmother; we were forbidden from calling them anything else. They were stern and cold, and in the years I knew them, I don’t recall ever hugging Grandfather or telling him that I loved him. I hugged Grandmother once and said, “I love you” when I was heading off to college, after Grandfather had already passed away, and she stiffened like a corpse and stood speechless.
Grandfather had worked for years for General Electric, starting as an entry level engineer. He eventually reached upper management levels and I’m sure made a good living at it, but on Saturdays, he worked as a shoe salesman. He said he did it just for the discount, to help offset the expense of my Grandmother’s voracious shoe habit, but I think he just couldn’t bear not working. On Sunday, his only day off, he worked just as hard around the house, toiling away in the garage on some unnecessary woodworking project, or spending hours in the sun, taking care of the massive lawn. He claimed that he couldn’t use a riding mower because they left tracks in the lawn, so mowing the whole thing took the better part of a Sunday. Years after retirement, while mowing the lawn, Grandfather suffered a bout of heat exhaustion. After that, it was determined that at twelve years old, I should be responsible for their lawn. I’d be paid $25 for my seven or so hours of work, twice a month. I appreciated the thought of $50 a month, but even as a naive twelve year old, I knew that I was getting a bum deal.
The first morning that my dad drove me to Grandmother and Grandfather’s house to begin my biweekly torture, I sat in mute disbelief, staring out the window.
“It won’t be so bad,” my dad lied. “Think of the money!”
As we pulled up to the driveway and saw Grandfather standing there next to the lawnmower, squinting in the bright sunlight with his ever present scowl, my dad said, “Look, there are just some things in life that you have to do. This is one of them. Thanks for doing it.”
We got out of the minivan and walked over to Grandfather. My dad handed me my thermos of water, “I’ll be back later.”
“What the hell is that?” Grandfather barked.
“It’s water,” Dad said.
“Water? What do you think, we’re poor? We can afford Gatorade!”
Grandfather knocked the thermos out of Dad’s hand, who wordlessly picked it up and escaped to the minivan, leaving me alone with Grandfather.
Over the next hour or so, Grandfather instructed me on how to gas up and start the lawnmower, his preferences for how I should mow certain problem spots, and other important lawn maintenance tips, such as:
“Gabriel, you always have to mow the strip alongside the road in the direction facing the traffic. The reason is, the people driving along this road, they’re crazy. When they see a young man mowing the lawn, they will have an overbearing urge to hit you with their car. If you’re facing them, you’ll be able to throw the lawnmower at them and escape.”
I looked at the huge lawnmower and tried to visualize picking it up and throwing it at a speeding car in time to flee with my life, but it didn’t seem possible. Questioning Grandfather was out of the question, of course, so I kept my skepticism to myself.
With the tutorial out of the way, Grandfather left me to my mowing. My Walkman blaring showtunes, I started my work, trying my best to adhere to the byzantine mowing pattern preferred by Grandfather, which he insisted would help the grass to grow more lush. That first day, I scalped quite a few areas, and Grandfather had me mow many rows over again to make sure that the tracks were completely straight. He was surprisingly understanding of my mistakes, and seemed happy to be able to share his lawn secrets with me. He never stood there and watched me, which would have been terrifying, but always went back into the house for a while.
About every two hours or so, he would come out of the house with two tall plastic cups filled with icy Gatorade and we would sit on the shaded stone porch steps in near silence as we drank together. There were salamanders everywhere, and we watched them scurry around, attacking each other over mates or prey or territory, or whatever else matters to salamanders.
“They always want to fight,” Grandfather said once. I don’t remember him saying anything else during our Gatorade breaks.
Finally, I suppose after receiving a call from Grandfather, my dad would show up in the minivan. Grandfather handed me $25, and I got in the car, filthy and drenched with sweat, and rode home, numb with exhaustion. Over the years before I turned old enough to get a real job, I mowed their lawn every two weeks in the summer and less in the relatively cooler months. I never had any deep conversations with Grandfather, but I realize now that this was my time getting to know him. He would never feel comfortable fishing or taking me to Baskin Robbins or watching a movie together; all he felt comfortable with was work. And so, rather than pay a professional company to make his lawn pristine, he paid his scrawny, clumsy grandson to mangle it a couple of times a month, just to have a little time together sitting in the shade, sipping Gatorade, and watching salamanders battle.