It was a normal Friday morning, like any other, and I was driving home from school drop-off.
I was characteristically late and therefore , as a side benefit, alone on the road—all of the on-time people had long since dropped their children off at school and ventured headlong into their mornings.
My two dogs bookended the back seat, one at either window, with muzzles protruding into the morning air, maximizing olfactory hallucinations. The radio, still tuned to the kids’ station from our drive to school, was playing some song about a whale named Willie who walks on water, and it was catchy—I’ll admit it—so I bobbed my head to it in approval as we moseyed down the street together.
In no particular rush to get anywhere and with no traffic on the road, I caught a glimpse of a man out of the corner of my eye, mowing his lawn. I gave him extra wide berth, this man who was nearly to the the street edge of the lawn I was quickly approaching, just to extend the kindness of a little extra space in a world where we’re always crowding each other in fear of not having enough for ourselves.
At the precise moment I passed him, with my car windows open and my kids’ music playing, it reached in and grabbed me right at the sweetness of my own childhood being—the inimitable smell of freshly cut grass mixed with lawnmower gasoline and a hint of perspiration. I was transported instantaneously to multiple moments in my past at once, colliding and concentricizing in rivulets as my consciousness hurtled through time.
In that moment, I was four years old, in the old house on the hill with the great cherry tree that blossomed in the springtime, its magnificent firework display of soft pink poufs effusing from every inch of branches reaching skyward and dangling earthward but always just slightly beyond my 3’1” grasp.
On Saturday mornings, like clockwork, after waking at five o’clock to go grocery shopping ahead of the crowds, he would mow the lawn.
The hill was steep, so steep that it gave me years of sledding pleasure in the wintertime, snowsuit zipped up to my chin, so many layers on underneath that I couldn’t bend at the elbows or knees, sidling down onto the Radio Flyer sled like a cocooned butterfly trying to locomote. The sled would pick up so much speed coming down the steep hill that it came to a stop only after flattening out and crossing the street, so I always had to watch out for cars approaching from either side before each run. But when the snow had melted and the grass reclaimed its territory, this sledding hill was too steep for the average lawn mower.
Yet there he’d be, traversing the hill from edge to edge as he descended slowly by hewn rows, dressed in shorts and knee socks and Tiger sneakers way back before they were cool, sweating in the summer sun, dedicating the hour and a half to the Sisyphean task that he’d revisit the following Saturday at precisely the same time, in exactly the same attire, maybe a different pair of socks. And this would continue, unabated, until the snow fell again.
In that moment, I was 14 years old, in the big house, five siblings later, where the four girls shared two bedrooms—I with my next younger sister, four and a half years my junior—while the two boys got their own rooms. The lawn of that house was flat, with more grass in the back than in the front, not unlike the hairstyles popular in that era.
My own hair, of course, was long and all one length, like most every other girl in my sophomore class. Always cherishing each precious moment of sleep, I’d wait until the very last possible instant to get out of bed and ready myself for school, showering just moments before leaving the house. In the winter, this ritual meant my long hair would freeze during the walk from the house to the bus stop and wouldn’t fully thaw until I’d sat down in homeroom.
That house was in a fancy neighborhood, where many of our neighbors hired other people to service their lawns. But he was still the master of our yard, having transplanted many of the fruit bushes and heirloom flowers from the house on the hill so that we could have some continuity after the move, so that he could continue to tend to them and preside over them. He took great care to mow the front lawn at an angle, and then in alternating directions, so that, when it was finished, it resembled a grand green at Oxford or a grass court at Wimbledon.
The back lawn, where we played, was mowed the regular way, because it was so long, because it was just for us.
In angry moments, he would grumble and complain that no one ever helped him do things around the house, like take the trash to the curb or mow the lawn, but in truth he’d never allowed us to help with these things. Maybe it was too dangerous for us to push the mower, to risk losing a toe if we didn’t do it properly; maybe he wasn’t willing to relinquish authority over his domain.
I never asked him. I wish I had.
In that moment, it was now again, a week before my 47th birthday, and I was overcome with the impulse to call him, to reminisce about the old house on the hill and the cherry tree, the big house and the funny neighbors, to ask him why he never let us mow the lawn or any number of a million questions I never got a chance to ask him, because I thought there would always be time, because I thought we’d both live forever.
And in that same moment, when all these things happened at once, my heart sank, a lump of emotion swelled in my throat and a single tear escaped from the corner of my eye.
I inhaled one more life-affirming swallow of the rare redolence as that single tear, born from the sweetness of my own childhood, trickled skyward.
Sarah Rosenberg runs with scissors, eats with her fingers, and encourages her dogs to kiss her on the mouth. She lives and breathes as the grateful shepherd of her nearly-nine-year-old daughter, whose old soul belies her young bodily incarnation. Sarah’s writing creates fissures in her seemingly hard surface, allowing slivers of brilliant light to shine out from within. She is a sheep in wolf’s clothing.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise