Are We There Yet: Well-oiled machines

Are We There Yet: Well-oiled machines

My son, who turned 13 in April, is taking on more and more responsibilities these days, which I think we all would agree is a good thing. Most of the time.

Many cultures consider 13-year-olds to be on the verge of adulthood, with confirmations, bar mitzvahs, the works.

I do not believe those ceremonies involve lawn mowers.

My son takes out the trash, handles the recycling and recently began mowing the Blog Photolawn — under heavy supervision.

I confess I did not witness the first few go-rounds, when our friends and relatives taught him the ropes.

But last week, as the grass was reaching above ankle height, I reminded him that it was time to mow.

“I didn’t know I was going to have to do it all the time,” he complained.

It rains, I pointed out. Grass grows.

He was walking out the door to go to a friend’s and promised, “I’ll do it tomorrow.” Tomorrow, as we know, never comes.

So Saturday morning rolled around, and as I was walking out the door for my rigorous once-a-week jog/walk/stroll I reminded him about the lengthening lawn.

He grumbled some protest, and as a parting shot, I told him his attitude left something to be desired — knowing full well he would fret about it the whole time I was gone. (I’m Catholic; I impart guilt.)

So I was vindicated when I returned to find him out in the driveway fussing with the lawn mower, a determined fake cheerfulness in the air.

“Hey, Mom,” he asked, “where’s the oil for the lawn mower?”

Wow, I thought proudly, he even knows how the engine works!

I showed him the quart of oil in the garage, and he said, “Oh, I thought that was the gas.”

(Did you just think “Oh, no!”? Because I did. Followed by, “There goes my Saturday.”)

He had dutifully poured at least a half-quart of oil into the gas tank. And then tried to start it four or five times. I’m no mechanic, but I was pretty sure that was bad. Visions of ruined carburetors danced in my head.

So I consulted my husband and my fix-it brother, who sort of groaned and then suggested we dump it out and then call the repair shop for advice.

Step A presented something of an engineering challenge. Lawn mowers are heavy and rather awkward. And recycling bins, it turns out, are a good size to hold a lawn mower but they also have holes in the bottom, evidenced by the new gas/oil stains on our driveway.

We ended up holding it over a bucket, then leaning it against a dishpan to catch any traces.

As we waited, my son kept making hopeful comments: “I don’t remember Dad mowing this often,” and “I don’t think it looks that bad.”

Nice try.

Meanwhile, a mechanically inclined friend suggested just putting gas in the tank and trying to start it, and the repair shop agreed. You might see some blue smoke for a while, they said, but it can’t hurt. Oka-aaay. (I just wanted to make sure it wouldn’t explode.)

So we went back outside and, just as I was about to turn the mower upright, my son said, “Oh Mom, here’s the oil cap,” which wasn’t on the oil tank for some reason. It Blog Photodidn’t register. As we lifted the mower a black sludge started running past my foot.

Many paper towels later we got that cleaned up, and I went to fetch more oil.

You know that thing about history repeating itself? My husband asked me a question just as I started to add more oil, and as I looked down, I realized I was pouring it into the GAS TANK.

I swear these columns write themselves.

After an exchange I will not dwell on here, we got the oil drained — again — and refilled both tanks. Miraculously, the mower started, sputtered and smoked a bit, then kept going.

Mission accomplished. Then I caught a glimpse of my son meandering around the yard behind the mower.

I don’t know if you’ve seen those intricately mowed stadium fields with the criss-cross patterns or even, in St. Louis, the shape of the Arch in the Busch Stadium grass.

Well, not my son’s. His was more of a serpentine pattern, with shaggy, overgrown hairs along the edges.

My Type A persona took over and I grabbed the mower, demonstrating the proper back-and-forth technique. Pretty soon I had done half the backyard and the parkway, and then I thought: What am I teaching him here?

So I handed it back to him — the mower shut off when I let go of the handle, but thankfully restarted — and let him at it.

The finished product isn’t perfect, but it’s fine. And as I watched him walk back and forth across the front yard, I actually heard him singing.

Later, I asked what he’d learned from the day’s experiences. “Read the label,” he said.

And? “Ask for help when you don’t know.”

This growing-up thing isn’t always smooth, but we get there eventually.

On to the next chore.


Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 351-5226, or or leave a comment on her blog at

Photos: Maybe what we need is an electric mower (top) or a push mower (bottom).

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