Suzanne Tobias

Suzanne Tobias: Lawn work brings life lessons

The phone call came at the perfect moment.

It was a neighbor from down the street, an older lady we see mostly on communal occasions like our cul-de-sac’s Fourth of July block party.

“The weeds in my backyard have gotten out of hand, I’m afraid,” she said.

She had checked the neighborhood directory and seen my son’s name listed among the kids who mow lawns, rake leaves, shovel snow and water plants.

Jack’s job listing didn’t specify weeding or miscellaneous yard work, probably because the extent of his experience to that point, besides raking, included exactly three jagged rows with our lawn mower – enough to make his father wince, grab the mower back, pat Jack’s shoulder and say we’d try again next time. (Randy’s kind of particular about his diagonal rows.)

But I didn’t tell the neighbor that.

She needed help. Jack needed something to do. And this was a lovely, early-summer afternoon, perfect for pulling weeds, selling lemonade or any number of entrepreneurial adventures.

“Sure,” I told the neighbor over the phone, and motioned to Jack to grab his sneakers. “Jack would love to help you out. I can walk him down there right now if that works.”

I re-introduced them by her backyard gate.

“I hear you’re going to be 13 this summer,” she said to Jack.

“Yes,” he nodded.

“And I’m going to be 79 in July. So we make quite a team, don’t you think?”

“Yes,” Jack said, smiling.

They spent the next hour and a half in her backyard garden – which already looked like Botanica compared to mine – pulling weeds and cutting back bushes. She showed him how to grab weeds close to the ground and pull out the roots. She taught him to use a dandelion tool.

When I returned to pick him up, Jack was clipping at a shrub with pruning shears, carefully putting the trimmings into a lawn bag.

“Wow,” I said, scanning the mulched flower beds. “This looks great.”

Jack looked at the yard, then back at me. He wiped his forehead. “There were so many weeds.”

The neighbor, crouched down in another corner of the garden, stood up when she saw me.

“He’s a fast learner,” she said, and Jack smiled shyly.

“He is,” I nodded, proud but also embarrassed that I hadn’t put that quality to better use at home.

Both my kids help out, of course. But too often I opt to do something myself rather than spend an extra minute or two teaching Jack or Hannah how to do it – valuable life skills like sharpening a knife, folding a fitted sheet, sewing on a button, checking the oil.

Hannah was about 10 when I realized, to my surprise, that she could shuffle cards.

“Elleana taught me,” she said, shrugging as she grabbed the deck during a family game. I briefly envisioned smoky basement poker games, Hannah and her childhood friend honing their shuffling skills between swigs of bourbon.

Jack’s recent gardening stint put a few bucks in his pocket and some skills on his resume. The neighbor hired him again a few days later, and he learned more weeding techniques along with the value of wearing long pants for yard work.

Life lessons, like weeds, tend to sprout up everywhere.