YOUNG BOYS yearn for summer days filled with playing ball, swimming and biking, sleepovers and fishing trips. I pursued these activities reliably in all the years of my youth except for one. When I was twelve, I was sent to Ohio to visit my grandparents for the summer. Being an elderly Italian couple, they did not ride bicycles, grill burgers or play ball. We did not go fishing or splash in swimming holes. Instead, I trailed in the shadow of my uncle and my grandfather as we checked the height of the grass and proceeded to lower it. When not mowing, I was a courier of household wine and homegrown tomatoes between a kitchen built into the basement and the more usual one on the ground floor. I set out platters of roasted peppers soaked in olive oil, sprinkled with garlic and parsley. I passed bowls of squid to my grandfather, accepted biscotti from uncles, and had my cheeks pinched by aunts and great aunts. At breakfast we planned lunch, and at lunch we considered what to have for dinner. Instead of watching television, I was entertained by family stories. These stories spanned lives in Italy, Ohio, France and Vermont. They were about uncles seeking fame, aunts beseeching saints, grandfathers and war, love and loss. Here are the lessons I learned from that one influential summer when the grass left its mark on my shoes, the garlic on my hands and the mowing on my character.