Leaf Boy

After years of laboring in the yard, the end was in sight when the author’s teenage son finally hit leaf-raking age. Or was it?

Illustration by Marcos Chin

It seems I’ve been in leaf jail forever. Year after year, the temperature dips, the trees hold their breath, and then all at once the leaves come down, consigning me yet again to long stretches of hard labor with the rake.

But if this grinding annual job has always felt like a life sentence with no hope of parole, this is the year I can finally use the one certifiable get-out-of-jail-free card I have been waiting so long to pick up. 

Behold the perfectly good, able-bodied teenager now sitting in our darkened den, feverishly playing Xbox and digging out spoonfuls of chocolate chip ice cream directly from the carton.

Okay, bud. Let’s go. This way to the yard.

Will is a bright, happy and motivated 14-year-old, but the lessons he has learned in nine years of school—and the fine motor skills he’s honed mastering such video games as Minecraft and Forza—have clearly not prepared him for the task I’ve placed before him today. 

I start by showing him how to hold a rake. He can’t get the knack of placing one foot on the tarp to hold it in place while raking the leaves on top. The concept of dragging the tarp filled with leaves to the street rather than raking them across the entire yard also eludes him.

“I’m thirsty,” says Will, already guzzling water from a sports bottle. “When is lunch?” 

We’ve been outside for 10 minutes.

I try to make things interesting by explaining my time-honored technique of raking leaves into long, sinewy lines and then into small, manageable, tarp-ready piles. I explain how leaves, properly composted, can be used to mulch the plants around the house—as long as you don’t pile on so many that rainwater starts seeping into the foundation. I suppose I could spice up our toil by bringing out the leaf blower, but I tell him that raking is an ideal way to stimulate the soil. 

His face is a master portrait of MEGO—My Eyes Glaze Over—and it’s clear that when it comes to the finer points of cultivating flora and landscaping the property, he has the attention span of a fruit fly. 

“Can the dog come out?” he asks as our sad-faced beagle watches us from behind the storm door. 

My blissful notions of earthy fellowship and long afternoons of shared father-son labor are quickly going off the rails. Will wants to use my rake instead of his rake. He stops every other minute to check his cell phone. He’s working at a regular pace when I go into the back yard briefly to dispose of some fallen branches, but when I return he is barely moving, now apparently a modern-day Tin Man in need of oil to keep from locking up.

The questions keep coming. “Why doesn’t Lucy have to do yard work?” he asks. His older sister? The one barricaded behind her bedroom door and plugged permanently into Netflix, who only comes out of her room for meals and Christmas? 

He tries a different gambit as he scratches at the leaves with all the vim and vigor of a 90-year-old. “Why can’t we just hire some people to rake?” Here’s my golden opportunity to play philosopher king. Because a man must work the land God has given him, I say with a sweep of my arm, trying my best to appeal to his budding machismo and American-born-and-bred can-do spirit. And think of all the satisfaction you will feel that comes from doing a job, and doing it well, and standing back to see our yard free of every leaf our trees can shake off.

Plus, people are expensive.

“Then I’ll pay,” he says.

“With what money?” I ask.

“My allowance.”

“But that’s money we give you,” I remind him, “so wouldn’t it really be us paying?”

“I’ll earn the money then.”

“How?” I ask. “By raking leaves? You’ll have to get a job raking someone’s leaves to hire people to come rake these leaves.”

Clearly not what he had in mind. He decides he’ll pay with online bucks he’s earned through stock trades with his school’s investment club. I point out that those bucks do not exist in the real world.

In my most gauzy leaf-raking imagination, the entire family will stride outinto the yard next year. Even Lucy emerges, uncomplaining and blinking in the sunlight. I have new rakes for everyone; we all observe my strategy of creating lines and piles; and in an unprecedented display of family fortitude and togetherness, we build a towering pile of leaves next to the street for the county to vacuum up the following Thursday. 

“I felt a raindrop just now,” Will says. It’s a clear blue sky. Then again, maybe we’ll just hire some people. 


This article originally appeared in our October 2018 issue.

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