Mowing at Dusk

Maybe this is nostalgia, or maybe it has something to say about the work a writer does. I’ll leave that up to you.

I was a boy who didn’t understand the things my father loved. I had my sights set in a different direction. Each spring, before I graduated from the eighth grade, and my parents made the decision to move back to our downstate farm from Oak Forest, IL, where we’d been living the past six years, we’d often make the five-hour drive south after school was done on a Friday, so we could spend that night, and the next day, and Sunday morning on those eighty acres my parents still thought of as home.

On warm evenings, we’d drive with the windows down, and as we made our way into the country, I’d smell the clay soil being worked in the fields. I’d see the dust rolling up behind tractors that were pulling harrows or disks.

“They’re working that ground,” my father would say. Then for a good while, my mother and I would fall silent, letting him dream of summer when we’d be back for three months, and he could be what he was meant to be, a farmer, climbing on a tractor once more to help the tenant farmer with the wheat harvest, with cultivating beans and corn, with baling hay and straw. “Smell that dirt,” my father would finally say. “That’s home.”

Years later, after he was dead, my mother told me it was his idea for us to move to Oak Forest. She’d lost her teaching position downstate, and he insisted that we couldn’t do without her salary, so she took a job teaching third grade in that Chicago suburb, in spite, as she eventually told me, of her lesser insistence that they would do just fine. “Maybe he just wanted an adventure,” she said. “I don’t know.”

I still can’t make sense of it. That adventure cost him six years of what he loved the most. My father was most happy when he was working his farm. He was willing to swap that for a life of sitting around a one-bedroom apartment, watching quiz shows on television, loafing at an uptown diner, going to my basketball games and band concerts—a man separated from his passion and his land.

What a happy thing it is when our passions and the places we occupy match. To do the thing we love in a place we love? What more could we want?

Those spring evenings on the farm, we sometimes got there early enough to mow the yard, a chore we accomplished with two mowers, one manned by my father and one by me. Often, it was dusk when we finished, the last few swaths taking some guesswork. Then in a deep quiet, after the roar of the mowers, we let the world come back to us a little at a time: the call of a whippoorwill in our woods, the whistle from a distant train, my mother pumping water from our well, peepers trilling at our pond. Oak Forest seemed far, far away. We smelled the cut grass. We let the night settle around us, and without a word we knew, my father and I, that this was good work that we’d done in this place where we belonged.

“We’ll sleep good tonight,” he said, and I agreed, letting his pride become my own. Yes, we would I told him. We surely would.


  1. Susan Cushman on April 15, 2013 at 10:27 am

    I loved this post, Lee. Having never lived anywhere that I felt “at home,” I ached to share the emotions you wrote about so beautifully here. The closest I think I’ve come to joining you in that place where “our passions and the place we occupy match” is the days and weeks I’ve spent at Seagrove Beach, Florida. Every time my feet hit the sand and salt water splashes against my legs as I walk by the ocean at sunset, I feel at home. I wonder if the feeling would still be there if I were able to live there year-round. I’d love to find out.

    • Lee Martin on April 15, 2013 at 8:02 pm

      Thanks so much, Susan. Sounds like your place is Seagrove Beach, FL. May you someday have the chance to have the feeling that you do when you’re there all the time.

  2. Toni Hanner on April 15, 2013 at 11:49 am

    The question “what is home” is endlessly fascinating, isn’t it? People ask me “where are you from,” and, since I’m an Air Force brat, I just pick the place that feels most like “home,” which is my grandparents’ farm in eastern Oklahoma. The smell of dirt — dirt that only exists “here.” Beautiful piece, Lee, and yes, I think it does have something to do with writing, because now that I’m an adult (hell, a senior), I’m never more at home that when I’m writing well, in Eugene, Oregon, where I live, or in Paris, Rome, the Oregon coast. We carry home in our heads and hearts.

    • Lee Martin on April 15, 2013 at 8:01 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Toni. I share your feelings about the ancestral home. When I’ve lived away from it, I’ve always kept it alive inside me and in my writing.

  3. Bren McClain on April 15, 2013 at 7:22 pm

    Lee, your writing always has such beauty and heart, but I swear to the heavens, this line in your post soared:

    Then in a deep quiet, after the roar of the mowers, we let the world come back to us a little at a time: the call of a whippoorwill in our woods, the whistle from a distant train, my mother pumping water from our well, peepers trilling at our pond.

  4. Ruth Ann on April 15, 2013 at 9:27 pm

    We were in Sumner yesterday for a spell and I thought about driving “down home” but was too tired of going on now. We will go “down home” later and to the cemetery next month. I will be thinking of all my ancestors also.
    Down home remains the homes of both my Grandparents; the Garrett’s and the Nicholas’s and my I do miss those days of summer down there in Lukin and dreaming of who would be the next person coming back the lane. Generally it would only be Grandma returning home from Rich-Law in Lawrenceville.

    • Lee Martin on April 16, 2013 at 7:35 am

      Ruth Ann, I, too, remember that feeling of anticipation to see who might be coming down the lane. Sometimes I’d stand in the yard, hoping to spot a rolling cloud of dust on the county line road, which would mean a car was coming. What a thrill it was to see that car slow down and turn down our lane. I guess as an only child I was particularly eager for company.

  5. Ralph Graff on April 20, 2013 at 5:52 am

    Lee, I love that you trigger every one of my senses, so I–a city boy from Brooklyn–could experience the essence of “Mowing at Dusk.” Brought me back to raising chickens at the University of California, Davis. Briefly. I was touched by memories of your father and the feelings you have for him. This is a most appropriate tribute.

    • Lee Martin on April 21, 2013 at 6:08 pm

      Thanks so much for the comment, Ralph!

  6. Amy Monticello on April 26, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    Lee: Reading this piece was swinging slowly in a hammock. Thank you for this bit of reverence and mystery and peace. I always think of Jason and his father when I read about the subtlety of your relationship with yours.

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