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Tending to Grass, and to Grief, on a Tennis Court in Iowa

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Mark Kuhn is hunched over, one knee on the bottom, pulling dandelions from an otherwise immaculate lawn. With a small, serrated blade, he rigorously carves tiny leaves from the turf, extracting as much of their roots as he can reach, and places them in a plastic container beside him. Dandelions, I learn, are as prolific as they’re stubborn.

Three days earlier and a few 4,000 miles away in my native England, Novak Djokovic had once more held the Wimbledon trophy aloft on probably the most revered court in all of tennis. Meanwhile, I used to be driving the 1,926 miles from my adopted home of Oakland, Calif., to be here, on this tennis court, on a farm in Northern Iowa, standing next to Mark and his weed-filled ice cream tub.

I kick off my shoes and stand barefoot like a toddler, taking within the Midwestern summer. The grass on the soles of my feet is warm and welcoming, and the morning sun undulates on the corrugated metal of the Kuhn family’s sheds and silos. I feel like I’ve been here before.

My memories of early childhood are mostly vague: a muted palette of inconsistency and confusion, lacking defined edges or chronology. But recollections of summers, which were spent in rural Cambridgeshire with my grandparents, are bathed within the palomino gold of the August sun on fields so far as the attention could see, and in the heat of the love I felt there. Every afternoon, a curtain of decapitated dandelion-seed fluff, churned up by nearby mix harvesters, would fill the lattice patio window, on its option to offering seemingly infinite latest beginnings.

It was here I discovered tennis — albeit watching, not playing. I used to be a resolutely unathletic child, one among my more enduring traits. In 1997, most British households had only five television channels, two of which ran wall-to-wall Wimbledon coverage for 2 full weeks, every 12 months. I might normally have been at college in late June, but it surely was clear to one among my more perceptive teachers — who knew that I’d struggled in recent times with my grandfather’s sudden death, and with my father’s decision to depart to start out a latest family — that I used to be deeply unhappy at home and can be higher off starting my summer break early.

From the comfort and loving safety of Nan’s sofa, I quickly became invested within the progress of Tim Henman, who made it to the quarterfinals. At first, it was because there was simply nothing else on TV, and the whiff of British success at Wimbledon tends to send my country into an inexplicably contagious fever. Ultimately though, it was Henman’s dogged determination that kept me hooked. An unlikely hero, his resolve was an unexpected ember of inspiration for a lost kid who was desperately grasping for something solid to hold on to.

A breeze flutters through the six-feet-tall cornstalks. Mark tells me the corn grows so quickly this time of 12 months that you could actually hear it. I’m unsure if he’s serious, but I furtively prick an ear, just in case. The lament of a mourning dove is accompanied by the shrill urgency of a red-winged blackbird flitting between field and power line. At ground level I hear the occasional crunch of tires on the loose gravel road beyond the farm’s perimeter. Necks craned, passers-by peer for a greater view of the All Iowa Lawn Tennis Club, as spectacular because it is incongruous, and a plume of dust forms of their curious wake.

Exactly 20 years ago, Mark, together together with his wife Denise and their two sons, Mason and Alex, began the laborious and experimental undertaking of constructing a grass tennis court on their farm on the outskirts of Charles City, Iowa. It took greater than a 12 months to complete.

It was the conclusion of a dream the reluctant third-generation farmer had held since 1962, having grow to be enamored of Wimbledon two years previously when he heard a BBC broadcast on his grandfather’s shortwave radio. Twelve years old and absent-mindedly doing his chores, Mark noticed the cattle feedlot he was standing in was in regards to the size of a regulation tennis court. However it wasn’t until the sudden death of a detailed friend, some 40 years later, that he was galvanized to attempt to make his far-fetched daydream a reality.

Mark plays on the court occasionally, but his most important source of joy lies within the rituals of preparing it for others to enjoy. The All Iowa Lawn Tennis Club — a nod to Wimbledon’s home on the All England Lawn Tennis Club — is open to whoever desires to drop Mark a line to request a reservation.

The week following the 2022 Wimbledon Championships, Mark is preparing to host Madison Keys, a one-time U.S. Open finalist, for an exhibition tournament benefiting her Kindness Wins Foundation.

Just after sunrise, using a greens mower, Mark meticulously crops one millimeter off the highest of the grass in 4 directions, giving the surface its distinctive stripes. Then it’s time for his favorite task: marking up the court. After aligning the perimeters with string, he slowly paints the tramlines — one careful step at a time, heel to toe — with an excellent white titanium dioxide compound. The online is then dropped and pulled drum-tight, until it measures exactly three feet in the center.

Suggestions for Parents to Help Their Struggling Teens

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Suggestions for Parents to Help Their Struggling Teens

Are you concerned in your teen? For those who worry that your teen could be experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts, there are a number of things you’ll be able to do to assist. Dr. Christine Moutier, the chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suggests these steps:

Suggestions for Parents to Help Their Struggling Teens

Search for changes. Notice shifts in sleeping and eating habits in your teen, in addition to any issues she or he could be having at college, reminiscent of slipping grades. Look ahead to indignant outbursts, mood swings and a lack of interest in activities they used to like. Stay attuned to their social media posts as well.

Suggestions for Parents to Help Their Struggling Teens

Keep the lines of communication open. For those who notice something unusual, start a conversation. But your child may not wish to talk. In that case, offer her or him help to find a trusted person to share their struggles with as a substitute.

Suggestions for Parents to Help Their Struggling Teens

Search out skilled support. A baby who expresses suicidal thoughts may profit from a mental health evaluation and treatment. You may start by speaking along with your child’s pediatrician or a mental health skilled.

Suggestions for Parents to Help Their Struggling Teens

In an emergency: If you have got immediate concern in your child’s safety, don’t leave her or him alone. Call a suicide prevention lifeline. Lock up any potentially lethal objects. Children who’re actively attempting to harm themselves must be taken to the closest emergency room.

Suggestions for Parents to Help Their Struggling Teens

Resources For those who’re nervous about someone in your life and don’t know the best way to help, these resources can offer guidance:1. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Text or call 988 2. The Crisis Text Line: Text TALK to 741741 3. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Mark learned these scrupulous and time-consuming methods on Wimbledon’s Centre Court, in 2012, when, on the age of 62, he served as a grounds-staff intern. (It wasn’t until he wrote them a 3rd letter that they let him come.)

In 2016, Mark was honored and ecstatic to be invited back to the All England Club to be an honorary court attendant. 4 days after he returned home to Iowa, his younger son, Alex, took his own life. He was 34.

By the point pandemic-induced house arrest rolled around in 2020, I used to be already standing within the ruins of what had been a very severe and unrelenting fallow period, punctuated by the suicide of an expensive friend. Though his death didn’t come as a surprise exactly, it didn’t make the ferocity of those first weeks any less painful.

Drained of purpose and, what’s worse, my baseline optimism, I had retreated right into a silent despair after I got here across Mark’s story. Wimbledon had been canceled that 12 months, however the BBC still had tennis-related airtime to fill, and so they used a part of it to indicate a brief and bittersweet film a few man in Iowa who had built a grass tennis court. I felt each Mark’s joy and his pain as if it were my very own, so I wrote him a letter — an actual letter, with ink and paper. I asked if I could come and take pictures a while. Mostly, though, I just wanted him to know that I believed what he had done was special, and that I used to be deeply sorry for the lack of Alex.

On the day of my eventual arrival, although we were strangers, Mark and I were unflinching in our conversations in regards to the parts of us for which words don’t come easily. Perhaps our respective wounds — the lack of a toddler, a father-shaped longing, the distinctive timbre suicide adds to grief — had found familiar counterparts. The absences we each feel are intrinsically unfillable, but perhaps just recognizing them in one another helped soften their sharp edges.

With every story, every clue, an image of Alex slowly emerged. The word “integrity” seems to follow him around. In a photograph within the office, I notice in Alex’s eyes what I believed was a characteristic unique to Mark’s — the way in which the sunshine catches their cerulean irises. You may see almost throughout, like a fleck of sunlight on the underside of a swimming pool.

“I even have something to indicate you,” Mark says, his warm face delighted and boyish as he flashes one among his conspiratorial smiles. We head to the kitchen and Mark takes a small baggy of what looks like a single leaf of arugula from the freezer. Placing it delicately on the quartz countertop, he giddily relays the story of the time the Centre Court grounds staff thought they were finished for the day, but, nervously, Mark identified a dandelion they’d all missed. He had managed to out-perfect the perfectionists, and the evidence was flown across the Atlantic to live within the Kuhn family freezer. He gazes at it with reverence: his little green miracle in a Ziploc bag.

A Union Jack evenly flaps above the court’s southwest corner as “The Star-Spangled Banner” is sung by the assembled tennis pros, their highschool senior opponents, the prolonged Kuhn family and the 400-strong crowd. The tournament’s umpire, smartly wearing a striped blazer, is perched above the court, eyes narrowed. Her seat is an old wood step ladder with the non-rocking half of a rocking chair attached, crowned by a souvenir Wimbledon umbrella that has seen higher days. Ball kids from the local highschool in Charles City have been enlisted, corralled by Maggie, a junior who’s showing her pigs tomorrow morning on the Floyd County Fair. The atmosphere is jubilant, but I’m conscious about how complicated today have to be for the Kuhns, since it’s also the sixth anniversary of Alex’s death.

The ache of their loss isn’t removed from my mind here. Overwhelmed at one point, I retreat to one among the sheds for a moment to assemble myself. Under the dim, functional lighting within the vaulted tin ceiling, the polite clapping and rhythmic clock of a ball on racket strings soothes me from the opposite side of the rust-barnacled partitions, and I ponder in regards to the flotsam and jetsam that surrounds me.

Wood rackets, empty Pimm’s bottles and decomposing tennis shoes. Unfamiliar tools, old photographs and a campaign sign for one among Mark’s stints within the Iowa House of Representatives. I count seven lawn mowers. I lose count of indiscriminately strewn tennis balls. I run my fingers along the decaying tailgate of his father’s old Chevy truck. Haphazard fragments form an atlas of my latest friend.

A coffee mug emblazoned with “#1 Dad” hangs above rolls of the court’s original bentgrass turf, which Mark and Alex seeded together just after Labor Day in 2002. On the workbench, next to the jigsaw used to chop the 628 fence pickets that now enclose the court, sits a sprig bottle of Roundup, the identical chemical Mark used to kill that bentgrass when he was swallowed by grief within the weeks following the lack of his boy. Before his death, Alex had written an inventory of improvements he desired to make to the court. Changing it to perennial ryegrass — the identical species used on Wimbledon’s Centre Court — was at the highest of that list. Mark made it so. The renovation gave him a way of purpose and renewal during those dark days.

At dusk, the hum of field crickets and cicadas fades out, and the katydids take over for the night shift. Because the spectators disperse from the temporary bleachers, a diaphanous duvet of mist — moisture emitted by the 770 acres of surrounding Kuhn corn — settles over the fields. The virtually-full moon rises majestically over the southeastern horizon, shrinking because it climbs the lilac sky.

The following day I come to say goodbye. Mark is puttering about, busying himself as usual. I accompany him while he completes a number of administrative tasks: We drive to the bank, mail a check, arrange a Venmo account. We glance out on the grass. On this court, I’ve learned, there may be love in every blade. Turning to the automotive to depart, I see the white globe of a dandelion pappus float past the motive force’s window and gently land by the front wheel.

On Tuesday, the day after Labor Day, Mark will close the All Iowa Lawn Tennis Club’s iron gates for the season. Before the summer insects fall silent in October, he’ll dutifully perform repairs and reseed the baselines, worn all the way down to the dirt by rubber-soled feet.

Come January, the Iowa snow will drift over the fence pickets, and the court, entombed in ice, will lay dormant until spring. Then, with sacred devotion and characteristic precision, Mark Kuhn’s rituals will begin once more.

Rachael Wright is a British photographer who lives in Oakland. You may follow her work on Instagram.

For those who are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for an inventory of additional resources.

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