Tropical Storm Beryl is side-swiping us, turning our already damp, verdant yard into a soaking neon-green jungle. We’ve had a wet spring. The garden loves it. So does the grass. You can almost see it growing, taunting the lawnmower with an added inch each day, gleefully choking out wistful hopes that I might get away with reading a book this weekend instead of mowing.
It’s not that I dislike mowing. I just like reading more. My oldest brother tried to combine the two activities, holding a book on the tractor’s steering wheel while slowly creeping over the grass. It was not a successful innovation.
We had a lawn-mowing business as kids. Not a big one - usually six or so yards a week. My parents let us use their pushmower and ancient tractor as long as we paid for the gas (and pushed the tractor home when it died, which was often). I started in as low-man-on-the-totem-pole around age seven, relegated to crawling on hands and scraped knees down the sidewalk with our cheap battery-powered edger. At eight, after fruitless protest over the parentally mandated “real shoes” instead of bare feet, I was working the pushmower. An older sibling always had to come along – not because I was bad with the pushmower, but because I was too scrawny to give the starter a sufficient yank.
Our clients rehired us year after year. We were cheaper than all the “real” lawn services, and very meticulous. Dad taught us how to lower the blade on one side for a neat cut along sidewalks, driveways, and curbs. We picked up sticks, made sure the grass was dry for an even mowing, rotated the direction of our path for lawn health, trimmed the grass neatly vertical along borders, blew the pavement clear at the end, and collected our clippings for disposal. Ever the mathematician, my brother once used a measuring tape, string, and stakes at the neighbors so he could cut their yard at a perfect 45 degree angle. Just that once, it was a work of art.
In fall we’d rake leaves. Winter brought snow shoveling. Occasionally we worked odd yard jobs like weeding. Half a dozen neighbors had us walk and feed their dogs when they left town. By 11 I was awash in babysitting gigs as well, moving from the early days (when I nervously called my Mom across the street for especially dirty diapers) to watching 14 four-and-unders at once with my middle brother. Not a job either of us would ever do again, I think – the pay wasn’t worth the migraines from six simultaneously screaming babies.
I don’t recall my parents ever suggesting any of these jobs. They didn’t monitor the work, and left us to run our own accounts, drum up customers, and learn from our own mistakes. One summer my brothers took full-time summer school physics at the local college. With so few hands, the mowing business dropped off as I focused on babysitting (better pay, no capital). I kept just one mowing job for our neighbors across the street. That summer was beautiful. Trees and soccer games and bikes beckoned. I let the grass grow, sometimes three weeks between cuttings. It got so long that it choked the mower, at which point I would give up and haul it home for Dad to check over, wasting another day. My parents never commented. The neighbors didn’t either. But the next year, I looked out the window in spring to see another company mowing their lawn. Well over a decade later, I still blush over that failed business obligation. I’m sure my parents knew a painful lesson on shirked responsibility was heading my way: Do poor work, lose your job.
Funnily enough, other than that one summer of slackerdom, I don’t remember ever minding the work. We looked forward to it. It was satisfying to do a good job. It was fun working with siblings out in the hot sun. It was rewarding to finish an afternoon’s labor and jump on our bikes to meet friends for ice cream. Our schoolwork and chores came first. We still had plenty of time to play. I’m all for letting kids be kids, but part of being a kid is training to be an adult. Not in the sense of bustling between drama camp, flute lessons, yoga class, and organized playdates, but in learning skills and habits for self-sufficiency.
How does it all pay off now? It was great preparation for real jobs and responsibilities. The savings I accrued throughout my teens were a definite plus as I stepped into complete financial independence the day I graduated from college. Juggling babies in the church nursery is a piece of cake after those nightmare years of sitting for a young moms’ Bible study group. And my lawn looks very tidy.
How did you earn cash as a kid? Learn any painful lessons when your parents gave you free reign? Associate summer with the smell of gasoline and grass clippings?