Grad party confidential: Dad's (lawn) work is never done

Graduation parties are a $5.8 billion market, featuring cards stuffed with cash, parents asking where the time has gone, and lawns nowhere near ready for the relatives. One dad's quest to engineer an American classic on grass that has already given its all.

Becca Clemens / Forum Design Center
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ROCHESTER, Minn. — I'm a dad.

I offer this mundane detail having recently completed the task of preparing our home for the high school graduation of our first-born child.

I have a feeling my editors want me to stay under 850 words with this cautionary tale of what can happen to a dad during grad party season. That seems like not nearly enough space.

But brevity in writing is my friend these days, given the discomfort I now feel deep within my L3 after sitting for too long at the old laptop, a little something I like to call my grad party sciatica.

A wound that lights up my left glute before racing down my adjoining leg, my grad party sciatica feels like a river of fire, except that I am traveling this river on an inner tube, and the sky is raining hot lava.


As a health reporter, I can tell you the L3 is located at the lowest point in a person's small back. As a dad, I can add that it is clearly the body's storage locker for all of life's lessons about delaying your lawn repair until a month before your daughter's high school graduation.

It seems I developed my grad party sciatica following a bold, game-time decision to shovel a mountain of mulch that had been delivered onto my driveway. This fragrant mound of ground cover had been called in at the eleventh hour after a landscaping expert took a stroll of our grounds and determined we needed to go all-in on shredded wood, and not to be shy about it.

"Start with 6 yards," she offered with a hundred-mile stare at the battered site where we hoped to impress neighbors with balloons and rented soft-serve. "Whatever you order, it'll never be enough."

We ordered 10. It wasn't enough.

A yard that keeps giving

Why does a dad — and a mom, of course — do this? It seems like a reasonable question, here on this occasion we set aside to celebrate fathers.

Why do the proud parents of accomplished graduates take up such fevered pulling of weeds as their house grows quieter and the days grow longer?

I have known dads who were aging rockers and I've known dads who were graying plumbers, attorneys and radiologists. To a man, they responded to the approaching departure of their child with lawn food and a sprinkler.

We must all know, somewhere in our dusty dad craniums, that you can only say farewell to a childhood once, and when that happens, do you really want to be looking at crabgrass? All that being said, you're asking a lot of this green space that has provided for the first 18 years of a child's life.


If I am forced to consider our small lawn and the punishment it has taken for this project, our bumpy back patch has provided for a playhouse, a sandbox, a jumpy house and more than a few frantic games of ghost in the graveyard as the parents talked late into the evening.

This space where we soon will erect a rented tent and fund not enough catering has bounced back from ice rinks, princess parties, finger-paint easels and camping tent sleepovers. It has survived kiddie pools, kickball matches, water balloon fights, and launch upon leap from a tree swing into a leaf pile.

Our small backyard has seen the sad passing and burial of our beloved family dog, and it has hosted high-level peace talks following badminton matches ending in sibling disputes over the back court boundary.

And now, faced with a date on the calendar signaling the end to all the above, we ask this expanse of chickweed and creeping charlie to become the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

This was on my mind last fall when I called a free-climbing woodsman to take out our two maples, then hit him up for the name of a good stump grinder. I knew that come cap-and-gown season our canopy of foliage would be blanketing the place with helicopters.

I nodded at my foresight as I pulled out our checkbook, then watched those mighty trunks fall. The sound of that stump grinder was music to my ears. Who of us could have imagined that trees would have the last laugh — that my petty deforestation would prove no match for our neighbor's maples as they carpeted us with the same spring dumping.

I wish I could say I pondered these life lessons on the glum day as I bagged the neighbor's helicopters with a power mower set to shave, but my eyes were too busy with a bumper crop of dandelions.

A different season of giving

They say $5.8 billion is expected to change hands at graduation time in 2022. That's according to a recent survey of nearly 8,3000 consumers by the National Retail Federation .


This same study says 52% of that gifting will come in the form of cash, and that the average graduation gift is $115 ($105 in the Midwest). But that's according to a trade group that wants you to spend money at graduation time. So it's OK to give less. I know I have.

A larger point goes unnoted. That whatever the size of your gift, grad party season is a timeless American classic in which well-wishers who have treated you with nothing but kindness are beckoned to a view of your new fescue, followed by a shakedown worthy of dinner with a mob boss.

You send them a lovely photo of your child, and they come bearing cards filled with checks. They may also get a brownie if they move fast, not to mention a pass in front of those childhood photos and, if they're really lucky, an adorable minute with your 18-year-old.

Seems fair. What is it but a privilege to spend even a moment with our children and those of our neighbors as they set off on their way, triumphant over 18 years of backyard near-misses, including some indoors.

Case in point. When she was just a few days old, I held my infant daughter while descending our uncarpeted stairs in wool socks. My wife says the sound I made as our now-graduate and I rode that flight of stairs was like a train coming around the mountain.

But I held her close, the whole way down, taking the hard ride on my L3, if I am to guess. So now I have a back that does not like shoveling mulch very much. I think it has earned that request.

Paul John Scott is a health correspondent for Forum News Service. His daughter's high school graduation party recently went off without a hitch.

Opinion by Paul John Scott
Paul John Scott is the health correspondent for NewsMD and the Forum News Service. He is a novelist and was an award winning magazine journalist for 15 years prior to joining the FNS in 2019.
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