Bill’s dad loves the dump. Every time Bill’s parents visit, Bill’s dad is anxious to make a pilgrimage to the Orange County Landfill. Before Bill’s folks arrived last week, Bill and I placed bets on how long it would take for Bill’s dad to bring up the dump.
When they arrived, Bill’s parents came up to my room to see me. Kathy, Bill’s mother then shuffled off to prepare lunch and Bill’s dad remained with me. “It looks like you have a lot of branches in the yard,” he remarked, referring to what remained of the tree that we lost on Independence Day. “I think Bill and I should get up early tomorrow and rent a trunk from Home Dept and bring all that stuff to the dump.” I believe it was the second or third sentence out of his mouth; I think it was a new record.
While Bill’s dad has done his part in contributing to his local landfill as well as ours, my mother has been working for years on creating enough trash to merit her own memorial landfill. During the Wall-E movie I half expected to see her name inscribed on one of the trash piles.
My mother has an enduring love affair with plastic wrap. Every morning my mother stood at the kitchen counter in a flowered housecoat and slippers surrounded by bags, lunch meat , condiments, fruit, etc. My mom made our school lunches every morning because, “there is nothing worse than a soggy sandwich that has been sitting all night” I completely agree with her on this. While we ate our breakfast, invariably one of us would shout an accusatory and disgruntled, “he’s lookin’ at me.” Once those words were spoken, silence was imposed on breakfast. In addition, my mother placed a cereal box in front of our each of our faces so we could not annoy each other using non-verbal approaches.. When I think about how hard it is to get two kids out the door, I marvel at my mother, “How did she do it?” I’ll never know (although I suspect the threat/use of corporal punishment played a large role).
When mom made our school lunches, everything was wrapped in plastic wrap or sealed in a plastic bag, including fruit. “Ma,” I would argue, “I don’t think you need to wrap the apple. Nature already did that.” Her reasoning was that as the apple warmed up the resulting condensation would endanger the integrity of the brown paper lunch bag. I guess I should have suggested that apples sit in a bowl at room temperature rather than in the refrigerator, but I knew my suggestion would fall flat and never be adopted into the our household’s “Rules and Regulation,” sort of like a bill being stuck in committee (See School House Rock, “I’m Just a Bill.” It’s how I learned about the legislative process, and I suspect that I am not the only one who relies on those short ditties to remember all sorts of interesting and important information.) She applied the same condensation rationale to our Tastykakes (Philly’s much better version of Little Debbie cakes). Our sandwiches were also put in baggies even though they were already wrapped in plastic wrap.
At a minimum, our lunches contained a sandwich, a piece of fruit, a Tastykake package, which included two identical treats (e.g., cupcakes, etc). Usually she also included chips of some kind and/or some candy for good measure. As my brothers entered their teens, they graduated to two sandwiches each. My mom would then place each humongous lunch in not one but two brown paper bags. The bag was always too full to allow her to fold the top over so she stapled the top sides together. If it was raining, the lunch was then put in a large plastic bag to protect it from the elements.
I’m sure my brothers ate their entire lunch, but there was no way I was going to make my way through that much food in less than 45 minutes. So I just redistributed the wealth. The first thing to get rid of was the excess meat from my sandwich. Despite repeated efforts to convince my mother to give me only one slice, she refused, “People will think I don’t feed you. Clearly my mother did not consider the possibility that my lunch bag, ready to pop at the seams, made it incredibly clear that no one in our household ever went hungry. It’s a good thing we were born with high metabolic rates. Marie usually ate my oranges because I prefer the juiced version. A set of pencil-thin twins usually devoured any other rejects.
My mom’s plastic wrap addiction is legendary beyond school cafeterias. Every year she makes trays of homemade cookies for friends and family. They are artistically arranged in a pyramid shape and the cookies are carefully interspersed so that each cookie is flanked by a different variety. Once the arrangement was complete, she began entombing the delectable and artistic food sculpture. I swear she went through one quarter of the roll for each tray. A friend of the family, a woman with a strong build and an often witty but uncensored tongue always jokes when my mother gives her the tray, mumbling things like, ‘It’ll take me to New Year’s to open this up."
Once I developed a conscience about the environment, I tried to make small changes in my lifestyle that would reduce my carbon footprint. Our household has hardly “gone green,” but I am trying to reduce, reuse, and recycle and to teach the children to do the same. Going of the grid or taking public transportation are not among my options these days. So I settled on doing little things to help in a small way. For example, with only two kids I reasoned that we did not needed a minivan and our little wagon serves us well. We do other quirky things: we wash and reuse gallon size Ziploc bags, we composte, and we support local farms through a CSA program (and the vegetables are so much better!!). After living in France and noticing that people often wore the same out fit two days in a row, I decided to bring the practice home with me. So now try to wear my clothes several times between washings (yes, this sometimes results in BO so it’s important to sniff the shirt frat boy style before donning it). And I try to ask myself when I make a purchase, “Can you live without it? Do your really need another pair of shoes?” Of course it is easier now to eschew random purchases for clothing because I have a lot and don’t really go anywhere anyway. For her 8th birthday, Amelia asked for donations to Heifer International instead of gifts (I was SOOOO proud of her). But all our small efforts never seem like enough.
Last winter NC was in the thick of a severe drought. We adopted the “If it’s yellow let it mellow; if it’s brown flush it down” policy in an effort to conserve water. Then a friend mentioned to me that you could use shower water to flush the toilets. I was fascinated: I never knew that if you poured enough water into a toilet it would flush on its own. So, I headed out to Home Depot and bought several buckets. I placed buckets in each tub and we began to collect shower water and use it to flush the toilets. I felt very proud of the fact that we were doing our part. Never mind that I was lifting incredibly heavy buckets with my two scrawny arms and out of breath afterwards. I really am a stupidly stubborn person.
We did this for several weeks when I mentioned my new daily toilet flushing ritual to my friend Kathryn. Kathryn has been saving bathwater to water her plants forever and I really admired her for doing this. Kathryn gently told me that perhaps someone on chemo could be excused from water conservation efforts. I felt like a penitent being given absolution and relief. It was the best confession ever
So I decide to “pay it forward.” Ordinarily, I collect the compost but Bill brings it to the bin because I cannot open the lid. He abhors this task. If I ever make a CD of all our fights (because we have the same ten arguments over and over and putting them on CD would save us the energy of actually having the argument; we could listen instead.), the compost bin argument would definitely make the cut. I nagged him incessantly about it, especially when it attracted fruit flies. He gave me his canned, “I’ll take care of it” response that really means, “Shut up. You are annoying me.” But after my talk with Kathryn I finally understood that our family needed to focus our energies on the important things: healing our broken and anxious hearts, making memories to last a lifetime, loving each other, and living while there is still breath.
For our family in this moment the compost ritual had to go. One night I dumped the contents of the compost bin into the trash and washed it. I told Bill that he was off the hook for the compost, “You are already juggling too many things. I think we can let the compost go for now.” His relief was palpable; I could her him sigh softly. I guess it was the first time that he realized that I did recognize his plight, his burden, his grief, his fears. I had felt these things all along and tried in small ways to convey my appreciation and lighten the load, but I think he needed to see concrete evidence to accept that I understood that he is just a man doing his very best to be everything for every one.
Unfortunately the carbon footprint of our household has grown exponentially, but it has nothing to do with terminating our compost efforts. Our home now looks like a medical supplies store: bags, cans, batteries (we go through 2D batteries every other day), flushes, syringes, dressing change kits and so much more. Our weekly garbage has increased by at least one-third. After all those years of teasing my poor mother, I may end up with a much larger landfill bearing my name.
For a while I felt guilty about my Sasquatch-sized carbon footprint, but then I realized I will not spend 80 years making trash. Perhaps it will even out; I may not have such a big footprint after all.