Like other men, my dad participated in the ritual of mowing the lawn a couple of times a week. For a family living in a trailer, we had a fair amount of lawn to cover, later reduced by the installation of a shed in the middle of the side yard. Our extra lawn and garden came about when our landlord, Frank, allowed us the use of the portion of field next to our trailer, which was at the end of the row.
My dad, ever economy minded, cut his grass using a push reel mower propelled only by the engine of his body. Consisting of an axle and blades between two wheels attached to a handle, the push reel mower could be operated with little effort over grass that had not turned into tall grass prairie or hay, and that wasn’t too full of lumps or sticks and twigs. I’d not be surprised if he had picked up his mower at the same junkyard that was the source of my first bicycle.
Push reel mowers are so easy and safe to operate that even a child of a certain age and over can do it (8+?). At a certain point, preferring outdoor chores to indoor ones like washing dishes, I began to help with the task of mowing the lawn, or at least part of it. I doubt my dad was patient enough to let me finish every time because, as he often said, “We haven’t got all day!”
The push reel mower offers many advantages:
- It requires little storage space. Many models can even be hung on the wall in the garage or shed.
- It requires little maintenance. On rare occasions, my dad took ours to a friend to get the blades sharpened.
- To get started, simply take it off the wall, set on grass, adjust height if necessary, and push. There’s no filling up with gas, pulling cords, plugging in cords, or starting.
- According to what I’ve read, slicing grass with a push reel mower is better for your lawn’s health and leaves it looking better.
- As noted above, it’s safer around children (and pets). I won’t transform rocks into missiles, it’s unlikely to amputate limbs or kill anyone, and it can be stopped as quickly and easily as you can stop in your tracks.
- It’s quiet. You can mow your grass at any time without waking the neighbors or causing yourself hearing loss. The only sound you’ll hear from the mower is the satisfying snk snk snk of grass being cut and work being done. It’s so quiet that you probably won’t even disturb any cottontails that are looking on unless you get too close.
- With no fuel needed except your most recent meal, no exhaust fumes except your own (ahem), and no waste, it’s an environmentally friendly way to keep your grass trimmed to homeowners association standards. Don’t worry about collecting the clipped grass tops — they smell great and are good for the lawn. If you’re set on collecting clippings, you can get a bag for some models.
- You’ll get some much-needed exercise. The obesity epidemic is a result (in part) of not having enough work to do, forcing Americans to go to the gym. Why do fake work when you can enjoy the satisfaction of the real thing and see its results in real time?
As for disadvantages, unless your lawn is enormous, lumpy, weedy, or overgrown, or sports a variety of tough grass, or you have a heart or other medical condition that makes a miniature workout complete with sweat risky, I can’t think of any. Just be sure to wear sunblock, insect repellent, and a hat as you would for any outdoor activity.
In addition to following my dad or pushing the mower myself, creating those neat rows of cropped grass, I have another fond but bittersweet memory associated with our old mower. The friend who sharpened the blades had a son, Billy, who was about my age. We chased each other and rough housed with abandon. I always looked forward to any chance to see Billy.
We didn’t visit Billy and his dad often, but one day we set out with the mower in the back of the van. I may have been between 10 and 12 and was eager to see my playmate again. Alas, it was not to be. When we arrived, we learned that Billy was afflicted with a some childhood disease (measles, I think) and was quarantined in his bedroom. All Billy and I could do was wave sadly to each other, he from his window, I from the gravel road. The wooded area around the house was part of the attraction of visiting Billy. It felt like a magical place.
As it would turn out, I would see Billy only one more time, when he and his dad stopped by several years later. Although I knew we’d no longer be playmates in the same carefree way, I was still looking forward to their arrival. Sadly, in the intervening years, Billy (now Bill, I’m sure) had morphed into a shaggy, sullen, awkward, and dull teenager who didn’t seem to remember me. He ignored me for the duration. In my unformed and moralistic mind, he’d been transformed from the happy, wholesome hero of a Scholastic Books mystery into a future hoodlum if not serial killer. Or decadent rock star. I never saw him again, and now I can’t remember his last name to see what became of him or if he outgrew that nasty teenage phase. It may seem a small thing, but I felt disenchanted with growing up and the changes wrought by the process.
As my dad aged, he let his garden go and to my horror replaced the push reel mower with an electric model. It wasn’t as noisy as a gas mower, but it was too newfangled for my taste. I wasn’t allowed to use it as my dad was convinced I’d run over the cord — to me, the constant fighting with the long, inconvenient cord looked more difficult than pushing the old mower!
One summer after I’d graduated, my aunt (his youngest sister) from Washington, D.C., and I visited him at the same time, perhaps after one of his health events. He decided to mow the grass after supper one day. No, no, no, my aunt signaled to me with her eyes. “Diane, why don’t you mow the grass?” No, no, no. On the one side, my dad, still didn’t trust me not to run over the cord. On the other stubborn side, my aunt didn’t want him to do any work in his condition. For my part, I didn’t want to use the mower because I knew he didn’t want me to and I knew how he’d react if I did. My aunt assumed I was being my legendarily lazy self and glared at me. I wasn’t going to win, and my dad wasn’t going to be happy.
As my dad hovered and fretted, I got the mower out, plugged it in, started it, and got to work, mindful at all times of the cord and thinking how much easier it would have been to mow with the old push reel mower. As I walked back and forth, my dad followed, haranguing me and nearly working himself into another apoplexy. There were some things I couldn’t do right, and this was one of them. My feelings ranged from resentment (toward my aunt) to bemusement to amusement. After I finished and had put the darn thing away, she said quietly, “I’m so sorry.” And she meant it.
Remember, push reel mowers can be operated by even the most mechanically inept teenager or overgrown adult you happen to have around the house. In the popular spirit of DIY, use one today!