The exuberance of the Reagan years ushered in a new era of consumerism, drowning American families in their own materialism. My father—a Latin and Jewish immigrant with more chips than he had shoulders—quietly obsessed about proving he belonged in an unfamiliar and often unfriendly place. Our lawn became a touchstone for his rocky path toward assimilation and a constant source of tension in our family. He lost his job in 1988 working for a subsidiary of Alcoa—one of the country’s premier producers of aluminum—at a time when plastics were kneecapping the metals industry. The more his career prospects faltered, the more the seams of our charmed suburban lifestyle began to fray.
We lived in a modest house on the corner of a quiet block with an expansive lawn that extended past the sidewalks into lush green parkways that bordered the street. We owned a bright green Lawn-Boy, an American-made pushcart mower. The brand dates back to 1934; its parent company, the Evinrude Corporation, made motorboat engines and is credited with manufacturing the first one-handed reel powered lawn mowers. Lawn-Boy remained an industry leader for decades until the company’s fortunes declined, and Toro, a competitor, acquired the brand in 1989.
Taming nature—even when it was confined to these man-made parcels of sodded land—was like sailing into a windstorm for a suburban kid with no survival skills. Owning a Lawn-Boy was like having a sailboat with a hole in it. Every few weeks, when the lawn needed to be mowed, the Lawn-Boy brought our family to the precipice of a meltdown. When the machine broke—as it routinely did—knock-down, drag-out fights ensued. After one such row, my mother stormed into the garage, grabbed the mower by its hinged handle, and pushed it into the middle of our quiet street. I grew accustomed to the inevitable walk of shame to beg a neighbor for their more reliable mowers when ours wouldn’t start. Most people would’ve given up on these machines, but my father remained devoted to Lawn-Boy products and their once-reputable brand for years despite owning several shoddy models.
On weekends, most of the neighborhood would be outside working in their yards. The thrumming lawn mowers and squealing Weed Whackers created an anxious soundscape while the air filled with the musty funk of petroleum and pulverized foliage. At any given moment, someone else’s father would peek out from behind a fence brandishing a pair of garden clippers or amble proudly by with his mower across his domain like a feudal lord. His kids, on the other hand, mowed the lawn like mourners in a funeral procession, a feeling I understood all too well.
Under the scorching Midwestern sun, I pulsed the squishy rubber primer button embedded in the Lawn-Boy’s handlebar and hoisted the drawstring to jump-start the motor. If I was lucky enough to get it started, I traced rectangular patterns around the perimeter of the lawn, weaving my way toward the center like a God’s Eye. Garbage bags filled with grass clippings piled up next to the driveway. When I tied the neck of each full bag, it exhaled the hot breath of freshly cut grass and molten black plastic. Throwing away the mulch added to the senselessness of it all. So much effort to transport dead grass from one plot of land, ours, to another, the landfill.
If the mower didn’t start, which was a common occurrence, I’d go inside the house and notify my father. This happened regularly, yet somehow he always managed to look surprised. Like clockwork, he’d come outside acting like I didn’t know how to properly start the mower. Then he’d follow the exact same procedure with the exact same results.
My father chain-smoked cigarettes, like most businessmen did in the ’80s. Our bulky, wood-paneled Buick station wagon was blistered with cigarette burns on the textured vinyl seat cushions like tiny lesions on human skin. The car permanently smelled like stale tobacco and work stress. There were empty cellophane soft packs of Vantage cigarettes strewn about the floor mats and half-eaten sleeves of square white Velamints concealed in the glove compartment.
I never really knew my dad’s interests outside of his day job. I’m not sure he had any, or at least that he ever felt like he could afford to focus his attention on anything other than work. He would garden in the summer—a modest plot in the backyard lined with heavy lumber trellises and filled with store-bought bagged topsoil—but only because he thrived on the frustration it created. The nagging weeds, encroaching pests, and bruised produce provided a bumper crop of angst. He wouldn’t admit it, but he reveled in the toil more than he savored the tomatoes.
My father had no lawn to mow when he was growing up in Argentina. His father died when he was thirteen years old of heart disease, and he became the man of the house before he hit puberty. Though I never saw it with my own eyes, his father was abusive, handing down a legacy of violence and bad parenting. On the surface, my father had a disarming sense of humor and could be quite charismatic to others, but, privately, he rationed affection and weaponized guilt. In our home, loyalty was all that mattered, and it could only be earned by enduring abuse, the way his father had taught him.
Decades later, it’s easier to contextualize my parents’ struggles. They were dangling on the precipice of American exceptionalism while it teetered on the edge of existence. They didn’t know it yet, but their children would be worse off than they were, no matter how hard they tried to build a better future for them. Reagan’s brand of economics—the dubious promise to the working class that cutting taxes on the wealthy will cause prosperity to trickle down—convinced Americans that they could buy their way out of any economic problems. Ironically, it feels like we’re slipping back into the ’80s all over again now—stagflation, epidemic gun violence, cold war, even Top Gun sequels.
They were dangling on the precipice of American exceptionalism while it teetered on the edge of existence.
As an adult, I’ve learned to forgive my father for having animosity toward his family for being soft. But it was an environment that he created, that he strived for, the trappings of suburban comfort. He always resented us for having it too easy, and we always tried to show him that we were resilient. Mowing the lawn was one way I felt I could prove myself to my father. But it never really moved the needle. I understand now that he was always moving the needle out of reach to those who sought his love and respect. Keeping us at bay meant he could continue to harbor resentment, always much safer and less vulnerable than giving love or receiving it.
My father died in January 2018, shortly before his seventy-ninth birthday. By then, he’d moved back to Buenos Aires, where he chose to live out his remaining years. We hadn’t spoken to each other for over a decade. Letting go of him was one of the only ways for me to show a belief in myself and a commitment to a more compassionate way of relating to others. Without contact, he couldn’t make me feel guilty for his unhappiness anymore. The only way I could dictate the terms of our relationship was not to have one.
We lost my mother to brain cancer in 1992. She was forty-five when she died, two years younger than I am now. Her illness and subsequent death decimated any shreds of chemistry left between my father and me. With medical debt piling up from my mother’s treatment, he applied for food stamps without telling anyone. My sisters and I went off to different colleges, and my father put our family home up for sale. He was planning to move east for a new job, but the house lingered unsold while his financial condition and mental health deteriorated. Out of options, he arranged to sell part of the land on our house’s plot to a next-door neighbor. The sale covered a large chunk of our front lawn and extended into the backyard to the area where he gardened. Forfeiting a piece of his precious lawn was a last resort for my father, a tacit admission of defeat.
In retrospect, we often dismiss the ’80s altogether for its anodyne music, superficial movies, and clumsy fashion. But more than any other decade, in my view, it foreshadowed what the United States has become. The suburban dream was already in foreclosure, but as long as we seal coated our driveways and manicured our lawns, we could keep ourselves sufficiently distracted from America’s imminent decline. Today, distraction is all we have left.
I moved to New York City shortly after I graduated, where lawns are a luxury foreign to most. It might be overthinking it to say that I moved to the asphalt jungle to escape the childhood trauma of mowing the lawn. Staring down at rats scurrying along the sheared subway rails, I should yearn for the pastoral setting of my childhood. But I don’t. Like many settlers in New York, I came here to follow my dreams. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I chose to reverse the migratory path of my father—toward the vitality of the city and away from the sterility of the suburbs—as if I needed to undo the sins of the past. The false comfort of an impressive lawn never fooled me. My dreams were here, where my father first came in search of his, but it was not the American dream. My family woke up from that fantasy decades ago.
Adam Reiner is a freelance writer and founder of The Restaurant Manifesto, a blog about dining out and restaurant culture. His work has appeared in Eater, Food & Wine, Taste Cooking, and Bon Appetit. He lives in New York City.