While I cooked dinner, Dad dressed in his gray winter coat and his pom-pommed snow hat and stumbled outside with a bag of rolled up strings of Christmas lights and a hot glue gun, a bag of glue sticks in his pocket. The temperature dipped into the low 30s. I wondered at the hot glue gun, thinking hot glue would not work well in cold temperatures. After near an hour, I thought I had better check on him, to make sure he wasn’t collapsed and freezing. But there he was, painstakingly gluing the light string to the brick every six inches. He was nearly finished, gluing the last six feet to the wall. “I didn’t think the hot glue would work on cold brick,” I commented. “Actually, the glue works better in the cold, because it sets faster, and I can move on to the next spot.” Just then he let out an “Argghh!!” as he pressed a fingertip into a dollop of hot glue. “I seem to be gluing my fingers as much as the lights!” he cursed. I reached in and held down each newly glued spot until the glue hardened, while he moved ahead to the next. I dipped my finger into the hot glue myself, and I rubbed furiously against the cold brick to wipe the burning glue off. “I see what you mean,” I commiserated. With the last section in place, we extricated ourselves from the tangled bushes and stood back to observe. “You did a great job, Dad,” I complimented. The white LED lights climbed one end of the brick wall, ran along its adorned top, and ended at the base of the other end. The next day we wrapped red and green and amber lights around the boxwood bushes. “Let’s get your mom,” Dad enthused as the sun sank and the cold set in. Mom was duly impressed, “You men did a great job with the lights!” Every evening, Dad flips a switch by the front door, contended at the cheery beauty at the corner of the front yard.
The cut grass and Fall leaves from the riding mower shoots into two rear-mounted canvas bags, which Dad empties into a large plastic can lined with a plastic garbage bag. He thumbs two holes into the sides of the plastic to vent the vacuum and allow the grass to sink and settle. Mom ties the handles. Together they lift the can, heavy and with wet grass clippings, and dump the bag into the large trash container, which goes to the curb on Sunday night for Monday morning pickup. Several times, I lifted the heavy bag out of the can by myself, not to show off, but just to get it done—and I was strong enough to do it. In the following weeks, I found Dad bagging the grass himself and wrestling the can up to dump the bag into the trash container. I felt bad I had done it by myself and made him feel he needed to be able to do it by himself. When I ask if I can help him, he says, “I got it.” So, now I ask him to help me hoist the can up so we can share the effort of dumping the bag. No matter one’s relative personal strength, collaboration is often the best solution for all involved, young and old, and middle-aged.
Dad loves his yard care tools, especially the power tools. The only power tool we owned growing up in East Brunswick, New Jersey was the push mower, with no power drive, for the half-acre corner lot at 2 Schindler Court (named by the developer-friend of Mr. Schindler of Schindler’s List). Now Dad enjoys a set of DeWalt battery-powered tools, including one of his favorites, the hedge trimmer. He often trims the bushes nicely round. But the trimmer cannot grab and cut the shoots along the ground, and bending and kneeling is out of the question. I, on the other hand, can (barely) bend and (barely) kneel, and I like the small hand pruner. So while Dad shapes the bushes, I kneel on a cushioned pad and reach under the bushes to cut their runners and shoots, leaving a collection of uniquely and pleasantly shaped orbs. The hard-to-get-to places are the ones longest neglected, but turning attention and effort to them yields pleasing results. There’s a metaphor there somewhere.
I had intended to accept an invitation to gather with the men of the neighborhood to help an ill neighbor with yard work he could not do. “Bring your chainsaws,” the organizer goaded, “and show what real men you are.” I chuckled, knowing his heart was pure. As I sat with Dad in the back yard, however, and he talked about all the things he would like to accomplish in his yard, I decided to change course. I chose to stay home and help with his yardwork, which I suppose is my yardwork. An impish niggling voice accused me of being selfish for not helping the neighbor. But I shrugged it off and responded, “Nope. That is not my mission. This is my mission: to be here, to help here, to the end. This is missionary work.” And so I got to work pruning trees and weeding flower beds and yanking out the long Virginia creeper vines. A smile on Dad’s face, and his call of “Looks great!” confirmed what I already knew, and made me happy to be so engaged.
The arctic willow bush tends to grow wildly, a thicket of unruly blue hair. And twigs die and turn brown in the midst, marring the uniform soft blue. Dad has always diligently pruned out the deadwood. This weekend he asked me if I would find that one elusive dead twig and cut it out. After a pine branch attacked me (see prior Pruning Pine Trees post), I wrestled my way into the willow tangle in search of brown. Like with the pine tree, once on the inside I found much invisible dead wood to cut out. I threw each brown branch onto the lawn, cut them up in short lengths, and filled an entire garbage can. Stepping back from the bush, there was that elusive brown twig still peeking through. Finally I found it. What a different removing the brown made to the quality of the blue. Nature is full of instructional principles, like how cutting out the dead keeps the living healthy and beautiful.
I ducked under Austrian Pine boughs to step around its trunk to prune the Arctic Willow. The blunt end of a lopped pine bough jabbed me hard and square on the temple. I swore, thanked God it wasn’t my eye, and trudged off for a saw to cut off the offending limb. Dad’s neighbor, Terry, regularly shapes the enormous Blue Spruce that sits just inside his property line. One day he decided the bottom boughs were too low, and cut them all off to a height of about eight feet. A little aggressive, I thought. But Dad chose to admire how the pruning had opened up the view of the neighboring yards, “park-like.” We looked at the Spruce’s companion Austrian pine on our side of the property line, and decided its bottom limbs drooped too low. We had to duck to walk under them, and Dad hit them when riding his lawn mower. He consented to me providing a “slight haircut” to the pine. Underneath their canopy, I discovered a mass of dead limbs invisible from outside. I lopped off all those I could reach. I carefully pruned the lowest hanging limbs, lifting the canopy bottom up a couple of feet. The result looked natural and less cluttered, bringing a better balance to the landscaping. Mom and Dad were really pleased. Following my normal clean-up routine, I snipped the boughs into short lengths that could be compacted into the garbage can, which these days seems to be filling up long before pick-up day.