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The Suburban Lawn

Carl Gunhouse, Development, Warrenton, VA, June 2007
  • By Peter Terzian
  • Issue 12
  • EssentialSeptember 2015

A few days before my father died a woman came to his house to introduce us to the concept of hospice. She said the phrase “end of life” in a matter-of-fact way. It was the first time he heard it used to refer to the end of his own life. He was ninety years old, had lost the ability to stand up or walk without help, couldn’t breathe without difficulty or hold down more than a few bites of food, but still he looked surprised.

The next morning he and I sat in silence in the living room. He dozed, woke, dozed, woke. For a long time he stared out the picture window, and then raised a weakened arm to gesture at what was outside—our lawn; the other houses on our street, other lawns. “I look and I see the grass, the trees,” he began, and then trailed off. He didn’t need to finish the thought. I knew what he meant.

Two months later, C. and I handed a set of house keys to the broker and packed the last of the things we wanted to keep into our hatchback. The lawn lay deep under snow; where it met the street the town plow had formed a steep wall of ice, the kind I had once loved to climb.

Our family didn’t travel to the country or the mountains. Trees and grass meant the lawn, the only nature my father came into contact with aside from the golf course, which was like an especially large lawn. (The dense, unapproachable forests that grew behind the Kmart, along the sides of the interstate, and in the mysterious vacant lots that sat like missing teeth between some houses, I grew up thinking of as wilderness.)

On Google Maps, the neighborhood where we lived is shaped like a wooden crutch: two long, parallel streets, connected by short stems, which eventually meet and form a cul-de-sac. Because there is no through traffic, everything was quiet, except when a plane descended, seemingly within arm’s reach, onto the runways of the airport two miles away. We lived mid-block, with a lawn of average size. I could walk the perimeter, front and back, in three minutes. A previous owner had landscaped with a heavy hand, and when we moved in thirty-seven years ago, when I was ten, a pair of monumental weeping willows cast the back of the house in deep shadow, three tall firs planted too closely together entwined their arms into messy knots, and a gnarled something blocked the living room view. I fantasized that the willow trunks were hollow tunnels to Middle Earth and liked to bury my nose in the lilacs that separated our property from the one behind it. But storms blew the willow branches into neighboring yards, and the lilacs were too difficult to mow around, so over our first few years my father cut most of the trees down. With no shade the lawn became parched.

The children of the neighbors were mostly older, and I had no friends nearby. I spent long hours playing alone on top of the woodpile by the kitchen door. I cried for a tree house, an in-ground pool. When I was fifteen I lay on the slope of the back lawn with my shirt open, exposed but also hidden, telling myself that I needed sun when really I wanted to feel sexy. One night I crept outside after everyone had gone to bed and masturbated over the patio railing. Then I left for college. I couldn’t wait to leave behind the nothing happening, and never moved back. On weekend trips home over the next three decades I stayed indoors and rearranged the books and records in my childhood bedroom.

For a few years, on balmy evenings, my parents and their neighbors, all in retirement, sat on lawn chairs in one another’s driveways, talking and drinking soda. When this tradition wore itself out, our lawn fell into disuse, though at the same time it was constantly being worked on. Every week my father rode his mower back and forth, in overlapping stripes, while my mother swept the clippings off the front path. After the job was done, they returned inside. Some of the neighbors didn’t do that much, hiring companies that kept their grass as uniform as Astroturf. Visiting I marveled at all the empty lawns—no one sat on them or played on them or walked around them.

But even when you are indoors a lawn makes its presence felt. There is a palette of green hovering in your periphery, just outside the panes; breezes enter through open windows and screen doors, carrying scents of pine and gasoline. I was always dimly aware of being surrounded by a cushion of space, a feeling I never have in the city. Deep in the night, the lawn carries on its own hidden life. Animals stage unheard battles. My father found a cat’s head behind the shed. An unidentified predator dragged a chicken from a coop four backyards away, discarding the carcass, which looked like a crumpled Victorian hat, under my parent’s bedroom window.

In my father’s last years C. and I would drive upstate late on a Friday, pulling into the glow of the lawn light after midnight. We slept side by side, he in my old twin bed and me on an inflatable mattress. Early the next morning I would slip past the living room, where my father slept after my mother died, leash up our dog, who was anxious to sniff traces of the local rabbits, and walk to the end of the cul-de-sac. Save for the occasional jogger, the world seemed to be ours. A short path led to the next development. We climbed to the playing fields behind the elementary school, where I could look out over a twisting game board of streets. In the spring sun, when the grass and leaves shone with damp, I would think that there was nothing more beautiful than these aging brick ranch houses and trim green lawns, each one someone’s grasp at happiness.

And then back towards home. As I turned onto our street I would spot, halfway down the block, our car in the driveway, the big green recycling bins waiting for pickup, the lamppost with our name swinging from it. In the months before my father died I tried to savor every step of the walk, knowing that there would soon come a time when I would never take it again. But I was also hungry for breakfast, as was the dog, who, eager to wake up the rest of the family, charged on ahead.

Photo by Carl Gunhouse, from the series America.