“Did you mow the lawn?”
Jeff huddled lower as he manipulated the joystick of his video game. Maybe if he ignored her, she would go away.
“I asked, did you mow the lawn?”
Jeff sighed. “No, Mom, I didn’t mow the lawn—OK?”
She ignored his sarcasm. “No, it isn’t OK. You need to turn off the video game now and get the lawn mowed.” She waited a few seconds, but Jeff didn’t take his eyes off the screen.
Suddenly the television clicked off.
“Hey!” Jeff griped. “What happened?” Then he saw his mom calmly slip the remote control into the laundry basket balanced on her hip.
Jeff grumbled as he stomped outside, dragged the mower out, started it up with a couple of angry yanks, and shoved it over the lawn. It took only about forty-five minutes, but he was still irritated when he finished.
“Satisfied?” he asked his mom, who was up to her elbows in bread dough. He jerked the refrigerator door open, looking for something cold to drink.
“Not really,” she replied. “Are you?”
Jeff stopped. “What do you mean?”
“I mean,” she said, “the lawn’s mowed, but are you better for having mowed it? Are you satisfied with a job well done? Are you happy for having contributed to the family?”
“Then you did it wrong,” she said and went back to kneading the dough.
Jeff returned to the television, but he couldn’t concentrate. His mother made no sense. The lawn was mowed, right? How could she say he had done it wrong?
Finally he couldn’t stand it any longer. He wandered into the kitchen. “So,” he asked, “how many ways are there to mow a lawn?”
“Not ways, really—more like reasons for doing it. Ask around,” she advised him. “Don’t ask people how they mow lawns, ask them why they do it.”
Jeff was happy to get out of the house. He wandered down the street, thinking. There could be only one reason people mowed lawns—because lawns grew and needed mowing and, in his case, because his mother made him do it. But he had the feeling his mother had something else in mind.
Down the block, Jeff saw his friend Chris whistling as he strode along. When he saw Jeff, he hollered, “I’m on my way to the store. Come on.”
Chris pulled a ten-dollar bill out of his pocket and waved it under Jeff’s nose. “The first of many, Jeff-o,” he chortled. “My lawn-mowing business is going to rake in the dough! I’ll be rich, rich, rich! Money may not grow on trees, but it does grow in lawns!”
Jeff laughed, then paused. “So why, exactly, do you mow lawns?”
Chris looked at him like he’d lost his mind. “For the money, of course. That’s the only good reason I can think of!”
They walked on, Chris bragging about the things he’d buy before summer was over. Jeff, however, was thinking. So far he’d found two reasons to mow a lawn: fear of punishment and the promise of a reward.
They were almost to the store when they heard an old mower ka-chunking through grass. As they rounded the corner, they saw Daniel finishing up the last bit of his front lawn.
“Want to go to the store with us?” Chris asked.
“Can’t,” Daniel panted. “I still have to mow the back lawn.”
Jeff grabbed the opportunity. “So why are you mowing the lawn?”
“Because grass grows.” Daniel said it very slowly, like he was answering a foolish question.
Jeff turned red. “No, I mean, do you get paid for mowing it? Or will something happen to you if you don’t mow it?”
Daniel just shrugged his shoulders. “Everyone in my family has chores, and today mine is mowing the lawn. Why fight it? I just want to get it out of the way so that I can do more interesting stuff.”
Jeff and Chris nodded in understanding, then headed on down the road.
So that’s what Mom meant, Jeff thought. You can do something because you’re afraid of being punished, or because you’ll get rewarded, or because there’s no point in arguing about it—you might as well just get it done.
Certain that he had found the answer his mother wanted, Jeff poked Chris in the ribs, and they raced each other to the store.
They were slowly heading back when they met Daniel pushing his mower down the street.
“Where are you going with the mower?” Jeff asked.
“The Merrill’s place.”
“Don’t you know that Brother Merrill’s in the hospital?” Jeff asked. “He fell off the roof last week when he was repairing shingles.”
“Yeah,” Chris added. “There’s nobody there. His wife spends every day at the hospital.”
“True,” Daniel said, pushing past them, “but the grass still grows.” He hurried on his way as his two friends stared after him.
“Uh, I have to be getting home now,” Jeff said.
Chris nodded. “Me, too. See you later.”
They did see each other later—about fifteen minutes later—when they both arrived at the Merrills’ home, pushing their lawn mowers.
Daniel was glad to see them. “I’ll do the front lawn if you guys handle the side and back. We can be out of here before Sister Merrill gets home. It will be a surprise.”
It was a hot day, and the grass was tall from more than a week of neglect. When they finished, the lawn looked beautiful. Jeff now knew what his mother had meant about satisfaction. The boys didn’t say much. They just grinned as they pushed their mowers in a line down the sidewalk, each turning with military precision when he reached his own street.
Jeff put the mower away and went inside. The smell of fresh-baked bread filled the air, and a pile of clean, neatly folded laundry was on his bed. He wandered into the kitchen where dinner was cooking and sat down at the counter, elbowing aside plates and silverware that were ready to be set out.
His mother smiled. “Where have you been?”
Jeff grinned back. “Turns out that there are four reasons to mow a lawn. You can do it because you’re afraid you’ll be punished if you don’t. You can do it because you’ll be rewarded if you do. Or you can do it because you have to and it’s easier to just do it than to complain.”
His mother nodded. “You said there were four reasons,” she prompted.
“Yeah.” Jeff looked down, then met his mother’s eyes. “I guess the last one is really the best one,” he admitted. “There’s nothing really wrong with the other reasons for mowing a lawn, but you only get that satisfaction you talked about if you do it because it’s the right thing to do—because it’s an act of service.”
His mother nodded. “And it isn’t true just for mowing lawns,” she said, giving him a hug. She turned to give the spaghetti sauce another stir. “We’ll eat when your dad gets home. Jeff, could you …”
She turned around and saw that he was gone—along with the plates and silverware. Then she heard a shout from the dining room.
“Hey, Mom, where did you hide the napkins?”