Posted: September 24th, 2014

"The Countess and the Impossible"

By, Fr. Mark Sietsema
This true story by Richard Thurman was first published in Reader's Digest in June 1958.  A post-script by Fr. Mark follows the story.

No one in our Utah town knew where the Countess had come from; her carefully precise English indicated that she was not a Native American. From the size of her house and staff we knew that she must be wealthy, but she never entertained and she made it clear that when she was home she was completely inaccessible. … 


The Countess always carried a cane; not only for support but as a means of chastising any youngster she thought needed disciplining. And at one time or another most of the kids in our neighborhood seemed to display that need. By running fast and staying alert I had managed to keep out of her reach. But one day when I was 13, as I was shortcutting through her hedge, she got close enough to rap my head with her stick.


“Ouch!” I yelled, jumping a couple of feet.


“Young man, I want to talk to you,” she said. I was expecting a lecture on the evils of trespassing, but as she looked at me, half-smiling, she seemed to change her mind.


“Don’t you live in that green house with the willow trees in the next block?”


“Yes, ma’am.”


“Do you take care of your lawn? Water it? Clip it? Mow it?”


“Yes, ma’am.”


“Good. I’ve lost my gardener. Be at my house Thursday morning at seven, and don’t tell me you have something else to do; I’ve seen you slouching around on Thursdays.”


When the Countess gave an order, it was carried out. I didn’t dare not come on that next Thursday. I went over the whole lawn three times with a mower before she was satisfied, and then she had me down on all fours looking for weeds until my knees were as green as the grass. She finally called me up to the porch.


“Well, young man, how much do you want for your day’s work?”


“I don’t know. Fifty cents maybe.”


“Is that what you figure you’re worth?”


“Yes’m. About that.”


“Very well. Here’s the 50 cents you say you’re worth, and here’s the dollar and a half more that I’ve earned for you by pushing you. Now I’m going to tell you something about how you and I are going to work together. There are as many ways of mowing a lawn as there are people, and they may be worth anywhere from a penny to five dollars. Let’s say that a three-dollar job would be just what you’ve done today, except that you would do it all by yourself. A four-dollar job would be so perfect that you’d have to be something of a fool to spend that much time on a lawn. A five-dollar lawn is—well, it’s impossible so we’ll forget about that. Now then, each week I’m going to pay you according to your own evaluation of your work.”


I left with my two dollars, richer than I remembered being in my whole life, and determined that I would get four dollars out of her the next week. But I failed to reach even the three-dollar mark. My will began faltering the second time around her yard.


“Two dollars again, eh? That kind of job puts you right on the edge of being dismissed, young man.”


“Yes’m. But I’ll do better next week.”


And somehow I did. The last time around the lawn I was exhausted, but I found I could spur myself on. In the exhilaration of that new feeling I had no hesitation in asking the Countess for three dollars.


Each Thursday for the next four or five weeks I varied between a three- and three-and-a-half- dollar job. The more I became more acquainted with her lawn, places where the ground was a little high or a little low, places where it needed to be clipped short or left long on the edges to make a more satisfying curve along the garden, the more I became aware of just what a four- dollar lawn would consist of. And each week I would resolve to do just that kind of job. But by the time I had made my three- or three-and-a-half-dollar mark I was too tired to remember ever having had the ambition to go beyond that point.


“You look like a good, consistent three-fifty man,” she would say as she handed me the money.


“I guess so,” I would say, too happy at the sight of the money to remember that I had shot for something higher.


“Well, don’t feel too bad,” she would comfort me. “After all, there are only a handful of people in the world who could do a four-dollar job.”


And her words were a comfort at first. But then, without my noticing what was happening, her comfort became an irritant that made me resolve to do that four-dollar job, even if it killed me. In the fever of my resolve I could see myself expiring on her lawn, with the Countess leaning over me, handing me the four dollars with a tear in her eye, begging my forgiveness for having thought I couldn’t do it.


It was in the middle of such a fever, one Thursday night when I was trying to forget that day’s defeat and get some sleep, that the truth hit me so hard I sat upright, half choking in my excitement. It was the five-dollar job I had to do, not the four-dollar one! I had to do the job that no one could do because it was impossible.


I was well acquainted with the difficulties ahead. I had the problem, for example, of doing something about the worm mounds in the lawn. The Countess might not even have noticed them yet, they were so small; but in my bare feet I knew about them and I had to do something about them. And I could go on trimming the garden edges with shears, but I knew that a five-dollar lawn demanded that I line up each edge exactly with a yardstick and then trim it precisely with the edger. And there were other problems that only I and my bare feet knew about.


I started the next Thursday by ironing out the worm mounds with a heavy roller. After two hours of that I was ready to give up for the day. Nine o’clock in the morning and my will was already gone! It was only by accident that I discovered how to regain it. Sitting under a walnut tree for a few minutes after finishing the rolling, I fell asleep. When I woke up minutes later the lawn looked so good through my fresh eyes and felt so good under my feet that I was anxious to get on with the job.


I followed this secret for the rest of the day, dozing for a few minutes every hour to regain my perspective and replenish my strength. Between naps I mowed four times, two times lengthwise, two times across, until the lawn looked like a green velvet checkerboard. Then I dug around every tree, crumbling the big clods and smoothing the soil with my hands, then finished with the edger, meticulously lining up each stroke so that the effect would be perfectly symmetrical. And I carefully trimmed the grass between the flagstones of the front walk. The shears wore my fingers raw, but the walk never looked better.


Finally about eight o’clock that evening … it was all completed. I was so proud I didn’t even feel tired when I went up to her door.


“Well, what is it today?” she asked.


“Five dollars,” I said, trying for a little calm and sophistication.


“Five dollars? You mean four dollars, don’t you? I told you that a five-dollar lawn isn’t possible.”


“Yes it is. I just did it.”


“Well, young man, the first five-dollar lawn in history certainly deserves some looking around.”


We walked about the lawn together in the last light of evening and even I was quite overcome by the impossibility of what I had done.


Young man,” she said, putting her hand on my shoulder, “what on earth made you do such a crazy, wonderful thing?”


I didn’t know why but even if I had I could not have explained it in the excitement of hearing that I had done it.


“I think I know,” she continued, “how you felt when this idea first came to you of mowing a lawn that I told you was impossible. It made you very happy when it first came, then a little frightened. Am I right?”


She could see she was right by the startled look on my face.


“I know how you felt because the same thing happens to almost everybody. They feel this sudden burst in them of wanting to do some great thing. They feel a wonderful happiness, but then it passes because they have said, No, I can’t do that. It’s impossible.” Whenever something in you says “It’s impossible,” remember to take a careful look. See if it isn’t really God asking you to grow an inch, or a foot, or a mile that you may come to a fuller life. 


Since that time some 25 years ago when I have felt myself at an end with nothing before me, suddenly with the appearance of that word “impossible” I have experienced again the unexpected lift, the leap inside me, and known that the only possible way lay through the very middle of the impossible.



A Concluding Thought from Fr. Mark


I read this story in my 8th grade English class.  It made an indelible impression on my young mind.  I hope that you will share this story with your school-age children.  Perhaps there is a lesson here that will stick with them, too.


The young resolved to do his best, not because of the extra buck or two that he might earn, not for the kudos of the Countess, but rather for the satisfaction of achieving his utmost potential.  He stretched himself into that fuller life for which God created him.  Αἰὲν ἀριστεύειν, the ancient Greeks used to say: “Always excel!”


There are two ways to live one’s life.  You can live to get by, live to please yourself—do what you want, when you want, how you want, as much as you can get away with it.  You can do just enough to provide yourself an adequate amount of leisure, just enough not to get fired or demoted or gossiped about. 


Or … you can live to please God, the One who made you and gave you a life for His pleasure.  In that case, you do what He wants, when He wants, how He wants, as much as you can do for Him.  You don’t worry about what other people think or say: not your boss, not your bishop, not your father or mother or spouse or children, not your neighbors or friends.  You do the right thing when no one’s watching … because you remember that God is watching. 


There is a passage that Saint Paul addressed to Christian slaves.  The principles apply to everyone, though: slave or free, employee or employer, parent or child, foot-soldier or general.


Ephesians 6:5-9


Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ; not in the way of eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free.  Masters, do the same to them, and forbear threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.


“Rendering service with a good will as to the Lord, and not to men.” In other words: do your best always; do your best cheerfully; do your best unconditionally, not caring what other people think or notice, not looking for any reward except from above.


When it comes to our service in the Church especially … you should be shooting for the five-dollar lawn job.  Our parish life is suffering from low levels of commitment, low levels of follow-through.  Too many of us lately are satisfied with a 50-cent lawn job in our attendance or our stewardship or our participation in the life of the parish.


Are you on a committee or a board?  Show up for the meetings.  Rearrange your life so you can be present.  Take on responsibilities.  Then complete them in a timely fashion.


Are you in the choir?  Show up for rehearsals.  Come on time for the warmups and be present for the start of the Divine Liturgy on Sunday.


Do you have children in Sunday School?  Come each week.  Honor God by showing your children that studying His ways is an unvarying commitment for you.  Honor the teachers by respecting the preparations they make every Sunday—and get your child there on time.  And don’t pull your child out of class early and disrupt the learning experience for other children. 


Do you have sons serving in the altar?  Have them show up for their assigned duty every time, on time, well-rested and well-dressed.


Are you a steward?  When you receive your pledge form for 2015, will you jot down the smallest number that your conscience or the cloak of confidentiality will let you get away with?  Or will you feel some excitement about doing something more for God than you have tried before?  Will you actually consider giving up something this year in order to give it to God instead.


We are Orthodox Christians.  Of all the religions in all the world, Christianity is the best and truest.  And Orthodoxy is the best and truest form of Christianity there is.


Do we behave like the best of the best of the best?

Do our efforts for the Church reflect what a great gift we have been given in this Faith?


Let this line stick with you, as it has stuck with me since 8th grade: “Whenever something in you says ‘It’s impossible,’ remember to take a careful look. See if it isn’t really God asking you to grow an inch, or a foot, or a mile that you may come to a fuller life.” 

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