Lost Journal: A Pointless Bit of Yard Work Spawns Two Backyard Becketts

Journal entry: September 10, 1988 (age 19) – Yard Work

During 13 years in the Catholic School system, I got used to having days off on and around the major Christian holidays. Now that I am in my second year at a public university (SUNY Oswego), I am getting used to the idea of having days off for the Jewish holidays. Before I graduate, I am hoping for a worldwide, ecumenical council of university administrators that will string together Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroastrian and Baha’i holidays, so that I only have to attend classes every February 29th.

But for now, I am home for a long weekend that marks the Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah. My parents’ house, on Cornell Avenue in Vestal, is a scenic spot this time of year. The leaves are starting to turn, transforming the surrounding hills into the color scheme of a Burger King restaurant. I had hoped to take in more autumnal sights today in nearby Ithaca, hiking the beautiful Cascadilla Falls with some friends.

My mom had other plans for my brother, Dan, and me. (Dan is a junior at SUNY Buffalo, and therefore the beneficiary of a similarly liberal holiday schedule.) Mom woke us at the crack of noon, and said we would be doing “yard work” today. This seemed odd, because one look at the front yard made it clear that my dad had raked and mowed the lawn within the past few days. But I dutifully shambled off to take a shower (and my time).

When I joined Mom and Dan in our back yard, Mom was in full drill sergeant mode. She handed each of us a pair of work gloves and a huge, plastic garbage can. Dan and I accepted these tokens and stood there, bemusedly, looking back and forth at each other and our visibly anxious mother. “Well, get going,” she said. “I want you to pick up all the twigs.” It was Dan who spoke first. “Um, Mom. We’re standing in the woods.”

This was not a wise-alecky remark, but a statement of fact. Our back yard is a large, wooded lot, filled with pines and other towering evergreens. The sloped ground is covered, year-round, with pine needles, pinecones, dirt and twigs. Not a single blade of grass grows in this shaded expanse, which is more suited to its squirrel and chipmunk population than humans. “I know that,” snapped Mom, “And it’s a mess! There are twigs everywhere, and I don’t want people tracking them into the house.” I was about to point out that no one really walks around in our back yard, but Mom was already on her way inside. “Please, just do it, boys!”

Dan and I spent the next 45 minutes wandering aimlessly among the trees. One of us would occasionally yell out, “Ooh – I found one!” We took turns comparing this task to other pointless endeavors, as sort of an exercise in existentialism. Dan said, “When we finish this, we should dust the bushes out front.” I agreed, adding, “Then maybe Godot will show up and help us separate the red leaves from the orange ones, to get them ready for laminating.”

Tim Mollen
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