Sunday, March 15, 2015

Apprentices In A Craft

William Shakespeare once wrote, "Some are born gardeners, some achieve gardener-ness, and some have gardener-ness thrust upon them." – or something like that.

 I am definitely of the “thrust upon” class.

Neither my mother nor my father had the slightest interest in working in, or even near, a plot of land whose purpose was the growing flowers, fruit, or vegetables.  I had a couple of Aunts and one Uncle who grew mostly tomatoes in small plots in their backyards and my folks and I occasionally enjoyed some of their produce.  One of the Aunts sometimes watched me afternoons during my elementary school days and she would sometimes take me to pick dandelions from an empty lot across the street from her house.  It was kind of fun.

Then we would eat them in a salad.   Not fun.

We always lived in rental properties, so my home lawn maintenance experience was nil.  My first such experience was working for the New Britain Parks and Rec department during High School when I mowed the grass at one of the town’s public parks.  That lasted one summer.

I did zero horticulturing through college, and for the first ten years of marriage during whichMars and I lived in an apartment in Rocky Hill.  Then we bought our first, and to date only, home in Wethersfield.

It came, as expected, with a lawn – not a significant one but at least an hour’s worth of walking behind the mower each time.  It also came, unexpectedly to me anyway, with a bevy of bushes and other unidentifiable (some to this day) shrubbery.  When I say unexpectedly I mean I saw them when we looked over the property and liked the look that they gave to the yard within which I saw myself lazing in my lawn chair during warm summer days.  It somehow hadn’t occurred to me that they grew – continuously.

And then there was the vegetable garden.  Mars’ father was an inveterate gardener, and a good one.  The backyard garden was just a fact of life for her.  So on our first Memorial Day weekend of home ownership, following my father-in-law’s directions and Mars’ plans, we dug up and planted our first of many vegetable gardens.  Much to my surprise this enterprise turned out to be the easiest of my horticultural challenges.

But also there was “Ernest” – the name that I gave to the guy who took care of my neighbor’s yard work because of his physical resemblance to the macho American novelist.  I still remember the first time I saw him.

He looked to be of retirement age, about six feet tall, and thin.  He was wearing clean, un-pressed tan chinos, brown work boots, a yellowing Irish knit sweater and a tan chino baseball hat.  The hat was planted firmly on his head, at a slight angle, with the left side up.   

A thin stream of white hair flowed out of the sides of the hat and continued down his cheeks, merging with a short-trimmed beard and moustache.  His neck was unshaven.  When he removed his hat, I could see that the hair on his head was military short.  It was a sunny day, but Ernest didn't wear sunglasses.   

He squinted (even in the shade provided by the long peak of his cap).  As he worked he removed layers.  First he took off his sweater to show a clean plain-white tee shirt.  Then the tee shirt came off to show an upper body, tanned and largely free of fat - but not muscular.

He worked continuously, pausing only for three things: to remove a layer of clothing, to take off his hat and wipe his forehead, or to smoke a cigarette.  He sat and smoked between jobs.  Between grass cutting and grass raking.  Between hedge trimming and hedge raking.  And before leaving. 

 The tools Ernest used were basic: a small, generic brand push power mower, hand operated pruning shears and a metal rake with several teeth missing.  His cigarettes, I surmised from the size of the pack, were either unfiltered "regular size" Camels (my father's brand) or Lucky Strikes (my former one).  The right hand that held the cigarette was always cupped.  He rested that hand on his left wrist and rested the left wrist on a crossed right leg.  He was very still when he smoked, except for his cupped hand slowly floating up to his mouth and back.

When he was done the lawn was uniformly short and clean, and the hedges were squared-off and flat.  He put his tools away and rode off on a blue one-speed bicycle, with his Irish knit sweater stuffed into a rusty handlebar basket.           

For eight years, during the yard-work season, Ernest came at least every other Sunday on that same two-wheeler to do his work. And virtually every time, and most Saturdays too, I was in my own yard trying to do the same. It wasn't in me to give my yard the squared-off look of Ernest's handiwork.  Instead I chose a less symmetrical layout, requiring much more intensive labor. 

As I pushed my mower, hand-turned my old and new gardens, or dug out my dandelions, I would stare over to see how I was doing compared to him - frequently at first, then less often. 

But I never totally stopped looking. 

As the real Hemingway wrote, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”

No comments: