“I’m going to cut the grass today,” he would declare. That’s when the first round of unnecessary but always expected sighs could be heard flooding out of our mouths. We sighed just loud enough that he could hear our loathing (even though most times we thought and hoped we were being discreet) as we waited for what always came next.
“You are going to have to help me, right.” Most times when a person says right at the end of a sentence it is meant to be in the form of a question but when my dad used the word it was clearly a statement. There was never any question about it – we were going to help him. “Jenna? Kellie?” He would repeat our names as many times necessary, each time his voice becoming a little less patient, until we stopped mumbling and clearly answered “Yes, Dad.” We never answered on the first time but if you made him say your name three times you were being dangerously daring. He didn’t scold or yell to instruct us that we were going to help him because it was always expected. Each week we had this routine conversation that never varied as if we were reading from the same ancient script. Dad would wait for us to acknowledge him and sift through yesterday’s mail sorting the bills from the junk mail or sit at the computer, serious and collected with a buried dash of lightheartedness.
My dad has an honest face with blue eyes that look closely into your soul. The wrinkles around his eyes show years of powerful thinking and his long, dark eye lashes soften his stern gaze. His skin soaks up the sun like warm toast soaks up butter giving him a rich tan that always makes my pale skin envious. His wardrobe has been the same for as long as I can remember: solid t-shirt and shorts just above the knee in white, black, grey, navy blue, and occasionally a dark green. His persistent wardrobe has caused him to bear the same distinct tan lines tattooed year after year onto his body. The four inches below his shoulders look like a meticulously crafted Greek tan and the skin immediately above it reveals pale colored pigments like my own skin. A blurred line around his neck, where his collar rests, hides where the skin turns pale so all that is seen is his muscled neck and that rich tan.
He didn’t announce when he was going out to cut the grass or how long it would be until he needed our help. We just had to be ready at any time, eyes on that back door, for him to subpoena us to the backyard. At first it was a guessing game but weekend after weekend we learned the signs of when we would be getting ready. He would sit on the bed and put on his tall socks and his older sneakers would be sitting ready at the kitchen door. His boney, round knuckles could start drumming on the glass of the sliding door at any time and as every moment passed I would search my brain frantically for a way to get out of helping with this dreaded though fairly easy task. I would paint my nails and accuse the paint of being too wet to do anything, claim I had too much homework to leave my room, or try to leave the house all together just so I didn’t have to help cut the grass. Unfortunately, these tactics never worked and Kellie would say my name in the same manner as my dad and drag me outside when we were summoned by the thudding of Dad’s sun-toasted knuckles on the back door.
The job in itself was not a hard job. All my dad wanted us to do was come outside for ten minutes (if that long) and help him move the lawn furniture so he could cut the grass underneath it in a timely manner. Really this should not have been a subject to whine and complain about since he cut the entire lawn in front of and behind our house by himself in the sizzling summer sun. Although, if you think about it, it was that same sun that had given him the lovely bronze tan he sported so he was at least getting something pleasant out of it. Mom would tell us every week to “be nice” and “don’t complain” because “Dad works hard” and “Dad does a lot” which are all very true and reasonable statements. I’m not entirely sure why it was such a big deal to get up and go help him. He wasn’t asking for a great deal of effort and it wasn’t like he wanted to be cutting the grass any more than I wanted to be helping him to cut the grass.
After being out in the boiling sun for a solid two hours, Dad’s tan was always a little bit darker and looked glossy from the sweat that was clinging to his skin. A thin line of sweat dripped down the back of his neck and soaked into his shirt in the same shape it had travelled down his neck. Sometimes it looked like a zipper and other times it looked like a crooked old finger. His sunglasses were the one part that was contradictory to his face. The sunglasses have been there for as long as I can remember and still look as shiny and jet black as the first day he wore them. Even though it would be weird to see my dad without them, they don’t seem to match him in some way. They look too cool, like a movie star should be wearing them on a billboard ad instead of my dad walking back and forth across the yard pushing his lawn mower in military straight lines. I guess some little girls look up at their dads and think they are movie stars but my dad is definitely not a movie star. He is practical, real, and uninterested in lattes and Twitter which makes his choice in sunglasses a bit puzzling. My dad outshines movie stars – he doesn’t move on to a new script and set after a few months. Things might not always be perfect and end with a fun song playing as the credits roll but he is still there rapping his knuckles on the back door, waiting for me to help him cut the grass.
Once I got a job and was gone on the weekends I was never asked to help cut the grass; it was all Kellie’s responsibility. Between the two of us, she’s definitely the mini version of my dad so I’d like to think she doesn’t really mind doing it (in fact, I think she might enjoy the ritual). Now that I am out of the house, I am not even there to hear the roar that signals the start of the lawn mower or wait for the echoing rap of Dad’s knuckles on the back window. I don’t see the small icicle shaped sweat mark on his shirt below the nape of his neck or his slippers sitting at the back door waiting for him to come back inside. I don’t see my Dad’s dark tan covered in sweat that reflects on the sun like diamonds or his black sunglasses looking too cool for him, but are actually fitting him perfectly because they are composed, serious, and attentive. When I hear my neighbor start his lawn mower I think about the way my dad’s red lawn mower sounded when it would start. It was not a disruptive growl but rather one of the breathtaking sounds of summer followed by the sweet smell of fresh cut grass. Those ten minutes were a guaranteed ten minutes that my dad got to spend with me when I couldn’t run away or skip out on which I’m sure meant a lot – especially since we never spent a great deal of time together. He didn’t have to plan anything or have a topic for conversation in mind because all he had to do was point at the chairs or table that he wanted moved and I would reluctantly follow his directions. We didn’t speak because yelling over the sound of the lawn mower and forcing my voice through his yellow ear plugs was not what these moments were about. It was being together; not talking, just being. I think about my Dad waiting all week just to spend those few extra minutes with me and I wish I had stopped complaining and enjoyed those moments. Those ten minutes meant more than just Dad getting help with the lawn especially now that his little helper is all grown up.