I’m pretty sure this calls for more pavement

My teeny yard is probably more than I can manage.

I’ve suspected this for a long time. My laid back approach to yard work is conspiring with the three garbage cans lined up by the garage, and maybe the red cooler and collection of shoes on the front porch to maintain our reputation as the neighborhood hillbillies.

The previous owners were a retired couple with no kids. I’m not sure what a retired couple with no kids was doing in a house with five bedrooms, but they had it furnished like you might expect for a house that was owned by a retired couple with no kids – separate rooms for sewing and crafts, an office, a guest room and a master bedroom.

The extra rooms are now dedicated to toys and camping gear. And luggage, a drafting table, and tax records. There’s a box of scrapbooking supplies from a brief time in my life when I scrapbooked. There’re two boxes of fabric scraps from a brief time when I quilted. There’s some kites, stacks of books and old Halloween costumes I can’t discard. A fax machine and old computer in a corner hint at our futile efforts to adopt this as our office at one point. We gave up when we couldn’t stave off the junk.

But this time of year it’s clearly the space outside our walls that is most in need of attention. I don’t like paying a chemical company to come spray. It’s against my ethic against better living through chemicals. My lawn, instead of being happy about being left alone, betrays me by inviting dandelions, crabgrass and clover over to party.

I have a teenager who should by all rights be excited about earning money with lawn upkeep (or weed downkeep, depending upon how you look at it), but is less than enthusiastic when I insist he follow specific instructions. I think specific instructions are necessary when one is letting one’s offspring loose with anything electronic with blades that rotate really, really fast, but maybe that’s just me.

Plus, the kid apparently doesn’t value straight lines as much as I would have thought. What I get after he’s done mowing is patches of long grass randomly sticking up between squiggly rows. I’ve decided this is either a highly successful, if disturbingly passive aggressive attempt at getting out of a job, or another example of how completely I’m failing as a parent. Then there’s the bonus of a massive case of heartburn over worrying whether the kid’s sloppiness is going to necessitate a mid-weekend trip to the emergency room.

It doesn’t help that my neighbors are all retirees with tons of spare time, who all seem to love yard work. When we moved in, little, old Ellie May still lived across the street. She passed away a few years ago and her son rented the place out to retired guy whose garage is cleaner and more organized than my kitchen. His grass is mowed in neat diagonal strips, and pots of flowers mark the corners of his patio and driveway. So now we have renters in my neighborhood who have a tidier yards than ours.

But at least he doesn’t judge me. Ellie May would come out and chat with me whenever she saw me working in the front yard. When I say: “whenever she saw me working in the front yard,” I mean whenever I was in the front yard at all. She used to sit by her window and watch for people to come into her line of sight so she could accost them. And when I say: “chat,” I mean she would stand in her front yard and yell at me from across the street.

Ellie meant well, but she had happy memories of how the former owners kept things up.  I suffered by comparison. They planted a riot of mums and daisies and a whole bunch of other stuff I can’t name and don’t know how to manage. It’s a lot of color that, I’m sure, looks really nice when someone is weeding and watering properly. By mid June, under my care, it looks rather more like a fire hazard than cultivated landscaping.

“That elm tree is looking like it’s having a bad hair day,” Ellie would yell from across the street. I agreed.

“Those weeds could win awards at the county fair, they’re so big.” I tried really hard not to flip her the bird in front of my kids.

“Don sure used to keep those shrubs trimmed up nice and even,” she’d holler.

“I prefer more of a natural look,” I would yell back. Crap, I was supposed to trim the shrubs? What next? Take a scythe to the back forty? Were we living an episode of freaking Little House on the Prairie?

Ellie’s station by the window let her monitor the entire street, but I seemed to be her favorite target. I never heard her giving anyone else direction.

Our first summer, I passed out a flyer inviting all the neighbors to a summer party. The page included our number for RSVPs. Ellie must have pinned it permanently to the wall by her phone for emergencies like letting us know we’d left our garage door open, or had failed to take the garbage cans back up from the street immediately after they’d been emptied.

Her first call to us was to thank us for the party invitation. No, she wasn’t going to be there, but had a friendly pointer to share:

“Folks can park wherever they want, up and down this street,” she said, “but you be sure they don’t block my driveway or park in it. I don’t want someone’s oil stain on my pavement.

Well sure, miss Ellie, I’ll make sure everyone’s parked properly before Jethro invites ‘em all to take a dip in the see-ment pond.

If we lived here, we wouldn’t have to mow anything. That’s water. It doesn’t need to be mowed. Plus it’s too dark.

Toward the end of her life, Ellie began to have trouble with yard work. She used a cane and had a hard time getting up from kneeling over the dirt. She hired her grandson, Tanner, to come over once a week. He did a fair job mowing but wasn’t nearly as thorough as she wanted with the weeds. I knew this because Ellie lavished her attentions on him from her front porch while he was working.

Tanner had shoulder length hair and great biceps. He’d work on his tan all summer, mowing without a shirt. He had straight, white teeth and smiled and waved at passing cars and pedestrians. He was friendly and called everyone “dude.” Our neighborhood is full of retired widows and stay at home moms. By the end of his first summer at Ellie’s, Tanner had built up a client base of about a dozen other yards on my street alone.

I kept doing my own yard work, but retired the frumpy gym shorts I had been wearing to weed the front flowerbeds, and may have fussed a bit with my hair.

One weekend I noticed some weeds coming up along Ellie’s front porch. Ellie had been carted off to the hospital the week before and had come home trailing a home health aide and an oxygen tank. She was getting better, but it had been a while since she’d yelled at me.

Colin and I were combining some mother-son time with yard work. I had borrowed a hedge trimmer from a neighbor that I took to the to the shaggy front shrubs. Colin gathered pieces of cut shrub in a bucket and was chattering away, unaware that I couldn’t hear him over the trimmer.

We finished up early and appraised our work. The trimmed shrubs did make more of an impact than I’d anticipated. I had thought maybe it’d be a futile task, like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, but no. This was accomplishment.

“Look at all the pretty yellow flowers across the street, mommy.” Colin pointed at the dandelions in Ellie’s yard.

Colin and I took over a bucket and trowel and started in on Ellie’s yard. As cultivated as she’d kept things over the years, these new weeds had to be making her crazy. She was not manning her station at the window, but probably propped up in bed, doted on by the home health care worker and angry as Hell that she couldn’t chase cats out of her yard and yell at kids passing on their bikes. Her yard was small and I thought we could get through most of the weeding and be gone before we were noticed.

Colin was chattering away at me as I dug out dandelions and pulled out grass that was making its way up under prickly juniper bushes. We had almost gotten away with our stealth weeding when I heard the screen door screech open and Ellie shuffle out on the stoop with her cane, an oxygen tube hung over both ears and dragging behind her.

“What the heck? What’s going on?” Ellie asked in her gravely voice. Colin made a beeline across the street. I explained that Colin and I had finished with our yard and still had room in our bucket so we thought we’d fill it up with stuff from hers.

“Besides,” I said with a little head bob, “things around here were starting to look a little raggedy, you know. Don’t want the whole neighborhood to go to Hell, just cause you aren’t around to supervise,” my smile let her know what a big kidder I am.

“Oh honey, you shouldn’t worry about anyone else,” she said, absolutely straight faced. “You got your work cut out for you over there.”

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