Some Thoughts on Watering Cars and Edging Children by Ann Morrill

There is a thin layer of dirt on my car--not a detail that four years ago I would have noticed. But today I have to work hard to not think about it, to resist taking a hose and getting it off. It isn't my child, after all, with a layer of dirt and germs on his hands and face that could spread to his mouth that could spread to his classmates. This thing is inorganic, a 1999 Ford Taurus, a car that gets our family to places too far to walk. A vehicle that generally occupies few of my brain cells, until today, when that thin layer sneaks into my consciousness.
We live in Southern California, and all cars must be cleaned ritualistically. Or so it seems when I look at the sparkly sports utility vehicles lining up as parents drop their kids off at my son's school. This is strange for me, as I grew up in a small Indiana town where trucks are truly used on country roads, and dirt is a way of life. "This is truck country," the saleswoman remarked impatiently the day I went to look for a station wagon on a local lot. As I surveyed the ocean of gleaming SUVs, I thought to myself--trucks as designer clothes, perhaps. How many Indiana farmers drive a Lexus truck?
The thin layer of dirt still nags at my brain, teasing me to wipe it clean. It isn't my child, after all, my big brain thinks again. Yet it is after having two children that this kind of neurosis has begun. Because there is also the other thing: I must edge my lawn. To this, I have given in. I have a hand-held edger and a push mower and I tell myself I do this for the exercise. But that is just part of it; I must have a precise lawn. I must sever the sneaking pieces of grass that crawl out onto the sidewalk, like escaping convicts. Sometimes after I am done, I even do it again, if I notice delinquents I have missed the first time, hiding in the shadow of some hoary palm fronds. My three-year-old Marcos helps pick up the pieces, throwing the criminal clippings in the compost bin.
A college friend, Anne, who lives in Boulder, told me that people who edge lawns are more likely to be Republicans. She discovered this tidbit while doing research in an effort to get her neighborhood association to stop using pesticides on their common playground. Democrats use more fertilizer, she added. "Organic?" I asked but she did not know. I admitted to Anne that I not only edge my little lawn, I do it with zeal. I wonder if she will ever write to me again.
Then there is my childhood friend, Mary, who I saw last summer while visiting my Indiana hometown. Mary lives in a Detroit suburb but returns as often as she can to our childhood home. As we walked together with her daughter one August morning, she pointed out to her twelve year old that there was almost no landscaping in town. Her daughter frowned and said it all looked messy. But to Mary, it was freeing.
Freeing, Mary said, in a voice that conveyed both nostalgia and reverence. What was left unsaid was the state of her suburban lawn. Yet I know it is even tidier than my own.
Mary and I discussed many things during our time together--husbands and teaching and parents and depression--but somehow this sliver of a conversation stays in the forefront. Perhaps this is because the town I feel I escaped is a place that represents liberation for her: a place with mud on trucks and a place where edges give in, like bodies that age with no fight and little pretense.
Pretense here is as prevalent as palm fronds. Yet from day one I was drawn to this surreal valley halfway between Palm Springs and L.A., with its heady mix of progressive laws and reactionary men, houses made of ticky tack on the same block as the Victorian and Mediterranean ones, shocking desert poppies and staid oak trees, a human landscape where people of all kinds mix and marry and speak in many tongues. And, of course, there is the sun, a sun that keeps me sane, a sun that drew me in more than ten years ago when I left the frigid Midwest first for New Mexico and then La la land. A sun that shows every spec of dirt that is at this very moment on my wagon.
This dirt is more than the sum of its particles. I want to clean it because this is something I can control, unlike those same particles that are in our dense and polluted summer air, unlike how terrorism will affect my children, unlike the future of Iraq or Afghanistan. This new inclination is merely an insignificant urge to control some small thing in a world gone awry.
Or is it? In this pull toward cars that sparkle clean and cutting grass corners to hospital bed perfection, what rears its supernatural head is also the junior-high desire to fit in. But just like then, I know that my efforts are imitation. Washing a car isn't merely hosing it down; here it is a chemical celebration. Edging a lawn manually is a contradiction in terms, as the look on the face of my neighbor's gardener makes clear when he eyes my hand-held edger, revs up his engine. Eighth grade angst all over again.
Except that now I have children. "Look, mommy, that man is watering his car," Marcos exclaimed one morning as we walked by a teenager in his driveway washing his Trans Am. "Watering" he said, as if it were a basil plant or rhododendron. In his cadence was a question that asked "Explain this to me, I don't understand." I didn't know what to say to him. Still, I found solace in the tone.
A picture emerges in my mind's eye: Next to my shining car on my shipshape lawn, I am polishing and edging my husband and children-- buff, buff, clip, clip goes mother scissor-hands. Hometown Mary stands next to me, shaking her head in sadness, while her daughter leans in and tells me where I've missed a spot, where I need to take more off. Sticking out of my back pocket is the check signing over all of our savings to the Bush administration.
But then I see them--beautiful Boulder Anne in the background with her wild hair offspring dancing raucously on organic sod! The sidewalks all around are giving in, cars are caked with dirt, inside and out, and falling gracefully to the ground. I feel a small tug, and before it is too late, I grab my manicured little ones and husband, and run, run, run toward the dirt and the din, the cars breaking down like a Malibu hill during a rainstorm, and the gloriously derelict lawn.