“The Lawn”

A Memoir by Ed Schrama

My wife and I bought our first house in the early 1960s and quickly found out that it was too small. We decided to have an extra room added that would serve as our master bedroom.

The work went off without a hitch and the job was finished in a couple of months. But the construction had damaged our small backyard to a point where we only had a small, reasonable looking lawn, while the area around the bedroom construction site looked like a desert.

We thought that a quick fertilization and seeding would solve all our problems but after checking each morning without seeing a single blade of grass popping up, we came to the conclusion that something was radically wrong with our soil.

What to do? My wife’s solution was the library. She quickly became convinced that an organic solution was much better than the poisonous fertilizers that I had used.

“No,” she said, “we have to use the natural, high in nitrogen materials that nature supplies.” We had only been married a few years and I was willing to go along with most things, but when she told me what I had to do I was ready to go to a local bar and get drunk.

She told me that I had to get two things. Human hair from local barbers and human waste from a processing plant in an adjacent town. They were both high in nitrogen, she said. I thought that she had gone off the bend but she produced New York Times articles that described beautiful lawns, all thanks to sludge and hair, and no matter how I argued I lost in the end.

The next Saturday I went to a local barber and, after waiting until all customers had left, explained what I needed. First the guy looked really astonished, but when he saw I was serious he told me that it was against the local health law to let people cart off his accumulated hair supply. It took me a half-hour to convince him that I really needed this to get my wife off my back and he let me go home with a bag full of rather potent-smelling hair. First part of the lawn project was complete. Next came the sludge.

Waste processing plants collect the material in large basins and it is treated in stages with assorted chemicals. After a number of weeks it is then removed, dried, and stored in large heaps that are covered with a canvas to keep it dry. Even though this substance is now bacteria free and safe to handle, it has a very distinct odor, sort of earthy, I would say, and this was what I had to load in the trunk of my trusty old car. It smelled to high heaven, even with all the windows open.

I had seen a honey truck on occasion that had a funny slogan painted on the back of the truck. It read “A royal flush is better than a full house.” I couldn’t agree more. I felt that I had a full house in the back of my car. When I explained to my wife that this had been a very unpleasant job, she kind of laughed it off. “It’s all for a good cause,” she said, and that was it.

The library materials had explained exactly to my wife how to make a perfect compost heap and she had written all the instructions for me out on index cards so I would not make a mistake. Okay. The next weekend we built the  compost heap together and then anxiously waited for it to heat up. The articles had assured us that that would happen within a week — it would get so hot that it would steam. Well, no heat in our heap and after a month we decided that something was drastically wrong with the project.

My wife had read that the hair would rapidly disintegrate and would disappear after a few weeks because of the nitrogen it contained, but when I started digging, the hair looked as if I just got it from the barber. Nothing had happened in a month. The sludge was pretty much as if it just came from the plant and when I showed all this to my wife she just blamed it on imperfect construction of the heap.

I shoveled all the stuff back in and called it a day. I told her that no matter what she said, I would not consider touching this contraption again. Fall and winter came and we had no grass, to my wife’s chagrin. She desperately wanted a nice grassy area in the backyard but only part of it was greenish. The rest was still dirt.

I had suggested that we try some fertilizers from the store, organic if necessary, but she refused. The result was a “half-grass” backyard.

I was very friendly with my neighbor and he and I had many discussions about the smelly compost heap in my backyard. I had been reluctant to tell him why it was so stinky but he kept on asking and I finally told him what was in the heap.

“You know,” he said, “I always thought that you had a screw loose, but now I know that you are really nuts. You put human shit in that heap. You have totally lost it, man.” Actually, at that point, I agreed with him. It had been a dirty job, all for nothing.

My wife had been doing more research, that’s what she called it, and said that we should spread the mixture out on the bare area and it would quickly break down in the sunlight. Well, I dug out half the heap and spread it about an inch thick over the total area and checked every morning for changes.

Two things became quickly noticeable. There was a distinct odor after it rained, and it killed the few weeds that had managed to grow in the dirt. And it stayed like that until Christmas.

 I had gotten used to the snide remarks from my neighbor about my great looking lawn, etc., and sort of forgotten about my nonexistent grass.

The day after Christmas I looked out of the back window and there was a four-foot pink plastic tree standing in the middle of the dirt field with a note from my friend next door. It said “No matter what you do, this will always be beautiful — you can’t screw it up.”

Ed Schrama, a Southampton resident, studies memoir writing. He is new to the pages of The Star.