Doing it Right

This letter is almost 50 years old. The compensation for mowing Mr. Cooper’s lawn was 9 dollars/week. ┬áThe generous $5.00 bonus was more of a compliment than anything and I owe all of that to my father. Keeping this letter all these years was a testament to his influence on me. You see, my dad was an engineer and also a perfectionist. He insisted that if I was going to cut 11 lawns in the neighborhood, I needed to make sure that I trimmed after each mowing. No dipping the wheels in the gardens to avoid the trimming. The burned grass and dirt would be a dead giveaway and my dad would be none too pleased. He initially inspected our lawn and the neighbors lawns until he was satisfied that I was doing it the right way. The McCloskey way.

Fast forward, when we moved from Siebert Road, there was a lot more maintenance at our new home. Not only was I instructed to rake the leaves away from the hedges, but I had to grub out the leaves in the trunks of the bushes. This was on my hands and knees, digging under the bushes. A less than noble task. When my dad planted his thousands of flowers, he manned an auger attached to his drill and again, I was on my hands and knees planting the flowers. The end result was beautiful but I learned quickly that manual labor was not a Spanish Diplomat. R.J. McCloskey got me involved in caddying and parking cars at his golf club and eventually some stints in the kitchen when they needed me. He eventually got me a job at St. Joe Paper in college summers, initially as an outside laborer- once again cutting grass and painting, but eventually a 3 shift union laborer. I learned a lot in the bowels of McKees Rocks, Pa. especially at the end of the night shift.

I had an orange International Scout once upon a time, and my dad thought I could go anywhere and do anything with that vehicle. While constructing his greenhouse he needed several pieces of 9 foot steel angle iron and he made a deal with his friend Clyde” the glide” Snyder to pick up some of these steel pieces at the National Steel Warehouse on the Northside of Pittsburgh. When I pulled in with all the flatbed trucks the guard laughed and said, ” What are you doing here man?” I told him I was here to pick up the order for the angle iron, he said, ” Well, if I loaded you, the crane would probably put the front of the load right through your windshield.” ” Come back with at least a pickup.” I did and he loaded me and as I went around a steep bend on Venture Street, I lost the load on the street with a loud clang. AAA eventually came to help me reload the steel with their hook truck and I made my way to Wexford, cursing my dad all the way. We had a good laugh about it later, but in typical fashion, my dad thought he had molded me into some kind of super human – which I was not. I turned out to be a good laborer, but nothing like he envisioned . My dad and I were very close. I miss him.

I don’t cut grass anymore. I don’t mulch, weed, plant flowers or rake leaves. I live in a carriage home community now where all of this is done for you. My friend Porter tells everyone that I have moved into assisted living. He laughs hysterically but deep down envies the fact that my manual labor days are over and he is still cutting grass. I cut grass for 50 years, so I did my share. But getting back to …………..the letter. The important lesson that has stuck with me all of my life is to do things right. My dad insisted on that. Even in my job today, I take care of customers. I follow up, see that things are done correctly and that the customer is satisfied. My dad gave me that ethic and it is so important today. There was nothing half assed with R.J. I don’t miss cutting grass or raking leaves or grubbing. But I will always cherish the good lessons that my dad taught me. He grew up in the depression. Tough people who did things right. The Greatest Generation. Thanks for reading.

The Gardener

Every time I see a flower, I think of my dad.Whether it is at the shore with the landscaping that captures my eye, or Phipps Conservatory, or the mountain laurel I see on my mountain bike rides in the Laurel Highlands, I think of my dad. For as long as I can remember, my dad had a passion for growing flowers. In our basement on Siebert Road, he would have racks set up in our basement with trays of seedlings growing under artificial light. I can remember him patiently planting his Burpee seeds into the little pots filled with potting soil and vermiculite and watering carefully with MiracleGro until it was time to take the trays outside in the spring and plant his flower beds. Never did he plant anything before Memorial Day because of potential frost, but the basement was overcrowded with trays and trays of flowers grown all winter from seed.

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Being an engineer, he designed an interesting tool that consisted of a simple electric drill, a special drill bit, and a long auger. When it came time to plant, it was always a weekend affair where I would be on my hands and knees filling the drilled holes in the flower beds with a specifically instructed lineup of flora. Allyssum was the delicate front row of the beds followed by yellow and orange miniature marigolds, backed up by geraniums, and finished with petunias and giant marigolds. This was the annual lineup of planting and as the years went on, the volume of flowers increased. His hanging baskets would burst with color and the weight of the growth would strain the very chain on which they were hung. The same meticulous lineup appeared in the hanging baskets and half barrels supported by large clay pots. Marigolds, geraniums, allyssum, and petunias always made up the pots and baskets with vining lantana that eventually cascaded out of the baskets and pots onto the ground. Watering with MiracleGro was the secret to healthy flowers and my dad used boxes and boxes of this plant food all summer long. IMG_0932

I was always the cheap labor- again, strong back weak mind that assisted with the planting weekend as well as taking care of the watering duties when my folks were away. When we moved to Wexford, my dad built a Lord and Burnham greenhouse where he really stepped it up. My duties as the watering guy were carefully explained to me with different nozzles for different trays of flowers but this is where I was different from my dad. My dad had patience where I was always anxious to get to some event and was always in a hurry. I would run into the greenhouse when the folks were away and hose the hell out of that greenhouse with the first spray nozzle I could find. I was careful not to break any seedlings for fear of ruining all of my dad’s meticulous and careful planting, but I did not take the time that he did switching nozzles to match the delicateness of the plants in his care. It was amazing to me to see his patience in the winter down in that greenhouse. The snow gently falling on the roof with my dad inside carefully watering each plant, in each little pot, in rows and rows of trays with suspended artificial lighting. IMG_0124

There were setbacks along the way and things were not always….”rosy”. Like the time that my dad planted tulips that bloomed like a Dutch garden in the spring. For one day, all the tulips radiated gorgeous color in the sunshine and the next morning they blooms were all gone due to the feasting of the local deer population. I rarely saw my dad angry but that morning, he was ready to strangle the deer bare handed. Another time, he was away and asked if I would carefully pinch off the dead blooms from the daffodils that he planted and I had the brilliant idea to attack the job with a weed wacker. The result was not pretty and my dad was none too happy. You see, patience in not one of my strong suits when it comes to gardening. Perhaps that is why I leave that to my wife and I simply admire the result. IMG_0134

I observed a lot of things about my dad over the years. His patience amazed me with his true passionate hobby of growing flowers. He was a big guy and to see him carefully planting tiny seeds for hours on winter nights, was insightful to his personality. Most people who have hobbies are people who are patient and gain great joy from the effort it takes to build a model airplane, create a candlestick on a lathe, or some other pursuit that takes time and effort along with a lot of patience and love. The result of the effort brings satisfaction to those who create, and appreciation from someone like me who loves to look at flowers due to the example of the efforts of my father. IMG_0930

I will never have his patience for a hobby. Most of my passions lie in outdoor activities. I always say that I am too nervous and jerky for a hobby. But I certainly admire those who pursue those passions and encourage anyone who takes the time and effort to create. Take the time to stop and smell the roses………I do. Thanks for reading.