Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Where I grew up in rural North Carolina, families had to dispose of their own trash. My older sisters and I hated taking out the scraps after mealtimes. In the 1950s we didn’t use the terms “composting” or “biodegradable”; we just knew to return food to the earth. Our parents gave us strict instructions about where to dump the scraps (the woods) and where not to dump them (the yard). Our father burned paper garbage in a rusty oil drum. Larger items were hauled to the dump.
Eventually the county began picking up trash from residences in our area. I don’t recall how often the truck came, but I do remember that every night after supper my recently widowed father would ask my new stepmother if she wanted to walk outside with him to take out the trash. Delivering the garbage to the can after dinner provided a daily romantic rendezvous for the giddy newlyweds.
I was seventeen by then, a senior in high school, and in my first serious relationship. I had no objection to my father getting remarried. No one who knew him questioned the love he’d had for my mother before she’d passed away from breast cancer. I saw my father’s decision to remarry as a testament to the happiness of his first marriage. And I had no objection to the woman he chose for his second wife. She was a good person, kind to me, and did not try to replace my mother, instead endeavoring to preserve her memory. Moreover, the fact that my father was so besotted while I was falling in love for the first time was very convenient for me. His preoccupation was a timely distraction from what might otherwise have been excessive fatherly oversight of my comings and goings.
So when he and his new bride returned each evening flushed and giggly, as if smooching by the garbage pail was the highlight of their day, I tried not to roll my eyes or smirk. I understood the anticipation and exhilaration of a moonlight kiss. I was happy for them. And for me.
Berkeley Springs, West Virginia
During a period in my life when I was homeless, I could often be found digging through trash cans as if on a treasure hunt. The bounty: bottles and cans that I bagged, hauled away, and exchanged for money.
In the predawn hours, after an exhausting night’s work, I could often be spotted pushing shopping carts overflowing with aluminum, plastic, and glass. Tied to the outside of each cart would be upwards of eight trash bags stuffed with more bottles and cans. Two, three, sometimes four shopping carts were tied end to end with plastic bags to create a clanking train, snaking its way among the garbage cans.
During these hours I was momentarily freed from a sense of low self-worth. Transporting my night’s haul to the recycling yard, I was able to walk tall and look the world in the eye. As the city streets came alive with the sunrise, I could be seen in all my grime and glory riding on the back of the last shopping cart: one foot planted on the bottom rung; the other making long, triumphant strides in rhythm with the rattling cans. For those brief moments, rolling down the sidewalk on my personal podium-on-wheels, I was, in my mind, the king.
St. Paul, Minnesota
In the early years of my marriage I started a journal. Day after day I would steal a few moments to write: on a bench by the playground swings; in a chair beside my mother at the nursing home; or just before collapsing on my unmade, laundry-covered bed. It was a difficult time. My father had died unexpectedly after what was supposed to have been a routine medical procedure. My mother, always depressive and nervous, was slipping into dementia. I had a rambunctious toddler we suspected was on the autism spectrum and a baby who needed to be strapped to my chest from sunup to sundown. The journal writing was a desperate attempt to carve out some space for myself amid the chaos of caring for others.
And it helped. I filled countless notebooks over the years with my sloppy, sometimes angry handwriting. Eventually a central theme emerged: my empty marriage. I realized I was unsupported by my husband while also being responsible for too many other people. Everyone who needed me, though, genuinely needed me. I didn’t begrudge them. It was my husband I resented: the man who came and went without an inkling about the household, made some money, interacted with us minimally, and fell asleep easily, as only a person who depends on someone else can. Perhaps because this realization was unwelcome, or because my time was stretched too thin, I shelved the journals and stopped writing.
Soon after that, my marriage began to implode. We had fights in which I would ask for respect, emotional support, agency. He would remind me that he had a job that kept him busy. (So did I.) He would point out that he had, in fact, taken out the trash every week and done some grocery shopping. His checklist of what it took to be a good partner and parent was shockingly simple. Coming from a working-class immigrant family, though, I couldn’t fight his logic. Work, trash, and groceries equaled survival.
When we moved to another house, I threw away my dusty journals. I was pregnant with a third baby, and our prospects weren’t good. If my husband was content with this pared-down version of me, I decided, I could be, too.
Years later, when I finally gave him an ultimatum — to be present with me or leave — he asked, “Who will take out the trash?” I was stung by the implication that my worth was paid for in garbage-removal services, and embarrassed that his question also made me nervous: What if I couldn’t survive without his help, minimal as it was?
I now have the answer: my teenage boys and I take out the trash every Wednesday, with lots of laughter and good-natured complaining. It takes all of five minutes. Trash night is a weekly reminder of my independence and capability, of the cohesion of this family with me at the helm. I’ve almost come to enjoy it.
During Peace Corps training in Sierra Leone, our group of volunteers was taught how to make reusable menstrual pads, better known as RUMPs. In the rural part of the country where I lived, no girl in the village was able to find, much less afford, disposable pads or tampons. Without these supplies, hygienic toilet facilities, or running water, most managed their menstruation at home while missing several days of school each month.
RUMPs were made of discarded fabric scraps and pieces of plastic from single-use water sachets, which were the most popular source of fresh drinking water in Sierra Leone. Every time I used a sachet, I cut away three sides of the plastic square to form a six-inch liner, which I sewed between scraps of fabric collected from local tailors. Once I had collected enough materials, I taught RUMP-making to the community nurses and school principal, who were then eager to have me teach every girl in the school. I purchased needles and thread and began holding group sessions, which attracted several boys who were interested in careers as tailors. Together the students cut, measured, and sewed. The teachers would continue the workshops after my Peace Corps service ended.
I participated in many community activities during my time as a volunteer, but none meant as much to me as this one. Who would have guessed a few pieces of trash could help keep girls in school?
Lambertville, New Jersey
I sat on my steel bunk bed, watching a filthy bird peck a picture frame made from discarded candy wrappers that hung outside my cell door, and I contemplated how the concept of trash is subjective.
A few inches from the frame, the detached fingers of a latex glove were fanned out like a ghostly hand. The officers use these disposable gloves to handle our clothes when they strip-search us. Inmates dig the gloves out of the trash, rip off the fingers, and surreptitiously transport various substances inside them — substances we are technically not allowed to have but which are essential to our quality of life, like powdered bleach, glue, and liquid soap.
Below the fingers was a single ratty sock missing the elastic part. We are not allowed to have towels in our cells (the shower area is located in a different part of the unit), so inmates use the tube section of socks to wipe away blood as they tattoo each other with a homemade gun — itself the compilation of several items that no longer serve their original purpose.
Being in prison has shown me how something qualifies as trash only if one’s circumstances in life deem it useless. This designation differs greatly from person to person. After all, if you were to ask, many people would say that we inmates are just trash.
In August 1975 I was living in Berkeley, California, and selling fruit out of my pickup truck on a street corner. One day I was presented with a citation (and a fine) from the Department of Health for giving some slightly overripe fruit to “Crazy Mary,” a street person in her early fifties who walked around wearing fuzzy pink slippers and a pink bathroom rug as a sort of cape. The first time I saw her she was eating coffee grounds, spaghetti, and eggshells out of a cut-off milk carton. I still recall the sound of the crunching. I offered her some fruit, only to have her hurry off with a look of terror.
I later learned that Mary believed everyone was trying to poison her and as a consequence wouldn’t eat any food that was given directly to her. I began setting some slightly imperfect fruit in a box on the ground whenever I noticed her coming. She often saw me “throwing out” this food, which she found sufficiently safe for consumption. Over the course of the summer this arrangement developed to the point where she’d occasionally walk by muttering something like “Mary can’t find peaches” — a cue for me to set a peach or two into the box for her. The health inspector didn’t understand our unspoken exchange and, despite my explanation, determined I had broken California health codes.
The next day I was still pondering the irony — that rules designed to protect the public could also prevent the hungry from eating — when “Earthquake John” approached me for a cantaloupe. John lived in the bushes near my home and was a regular “customer” at my stand. He always exchanged a lengthy prophesy, often about the inevitability of a disastrous earthquake, for a piece or two of fruit. He spent a lot of his time scavenging for used clothing, which he packaged and sent to Native American reservations, after he had panhandled enough money for postage. John thanked me for the melon, saying he was particularly grateful because the Safeway dumpster where he usually found his meals had been doused with kerosene that day, in an apparent effort to discourage people from looking for food.
Although I was on speaking terms with a number of street people, I never saw them talk to one another, so what happened next took me by surprise: John shook my hand and gave me a blessing in his usual dignified manner, then crossed the street, produced a pocketknife, and with graceful strokes cut the melon into three wedges, knocking the seeds into a planter. I noticed two other men approaching him from either side. Without a word he presented each with a section of melon. All three devoured the fruit, set the rinds in the planter, and departed in different directions.
I never paid that health-department fine. Instead I gave the money to John for his Native American–relief work.
In the late 1990s Washington State passed a law banning trampolines at day-care centers. When I saw the day care down the street set their twelve-foot-diameter blue trampoline on the curb, I asked if I could haul it away for them. They agreed, but I had to remove it immediately. Having no other means to transport it, I turned it on end and rolled it home in the bike lane. It was rush hour, and the trampoline was a little wobbly, but my treasure and I made it back to my apartment building in an hour or so.
I convinced the parking-lot attendant at my apartment complex to rent me two parking spaces in which to store Big Blue overnight. The next day my dad brought his tools and helped me take it apart, then reassemble it in my top-floor unit.
For the next year or so the trampoline served as my table, couch, and bed. I was the envy of my friends as we bounced while looking down at the city lights. (Trampoline sex is awesome, by the way.)
It’s still the best piece of furniture I’ve ever had.
Deer Island, Oregon
My parents were missionaries who raised my siblings and me in Thailand. Every second or third summer, when we visited the U.S. on furlough, we traveled to churches, where my dad would give slide presentations about their work. The pictures mostly showed big-eyed children in school uniforms bowing with folded hands. We often stayed with relatives in the U.S., but if our travels stretched beyond the territory of our extended family, we were hosted by church members. We never knew what to expect, but the homes were almost always fancy compared to our urban Bangkok apartment. Most had huge green lawns, recliners in the den, and lots of microwave popcorn.
One time we were invited to dinner at the home of a family whose house was beautiful and whose life seemed picture-perfect: a golden retriever, a blond teenager, more than one television, and endless carpeted rooms. My parents did their usual socializing, and we enjoyed a summer barbecue of grilled hamburgers and hot dogs.
Other than an occasional Sunday meal at McDonald’s, we never ate hamburgers in Thailand. Our meals usually consisted of a little chicken or pork with vegetables and rice, and beef only occasionally, as thin, gristly strips in a curry. So we devoured those burgers, layering on cheese, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard as our dad and our Michigan cousins had taught us. We piled potato chips, carrot sticks, and grapes on our plates and ate even after we were full.
After the meal, the adults gathered in the kitchen to clean up, and the other kids obliged my siblings and me with a game. At one point I stopped by the kitchen as our hosts were scraping plates into the trash and loading the dishwasher. I eyed the platter of hamburgers, wondering if it would be impolite to request just one more before they were put away. But instead of packing them up as leftovers, the husband used a spatula to push them all into the garbage can. Shocked, I saw my parents pause midconversation, unable to speak. It was too late; the meat was now buried beneath uneaten coleslaw and dirty wrappers.
My parents still spend most of their time in a rural village in Thailand. This past weekend they came to visit me in Chicago. I had just hosted several groups of friends for Memorial Day cookouts, and the fridge was full of leftover hot dogs, raw brats still in the packaging, containers of baked beans and potato salad, and bags of buns. But I prepared fresh meals for my mom and dad, too proud to offer them leftovers.
They were in town to do a presentation for a wealthy potential donor who was interested in supporting the village school. My dad mentioned in passing how the two hundred dollars we had spent at a barbecue restaurant for his birthday would have fed ninety-five kids for a week. My husband and I had considered two hundred dollars a perfectly reasonable cost to feed twelve people ribs, brisket, macaroni and cheese, and okra.
I’m sure my dad was thinking of the food budget for the children who live in the school’s dorm. The last time I’d visited, the kids had run out of rice with which to make Saturday lunch, so I’d given one of the girls the equivalent of forty dollars to buy two huge sacks at the store.
We never got around to eating the Memorial Day leftovers, and I eventually threw them away, feeling my stomach turn as I looked at the pile of still-edible hot dogs and beans in our compost bin. I have become one of those Americans.
Oak Park, Illinois
I should have known when I called my mom to tell her I’d gotten engaged and I started sobbing unexpectedly as soon as I began to speak.
I should have known when I tried on my wedding dress for alterations and had a panic attack with vertigo so severe I couldn’t remain standing long enough to be fitted.
I definitely should have known the morning of our rehearsal dinner, when my engagement ring mysteriously vanished somewhere in our tiny condo. After hours of searching, I finally found it at the bottom of our bedroom trash can. It felt like an omen, but I got married the next day anyway.
Three years later we divorced.
Since then, I’ve learned that my subconscious often signals to me when something’s wrong before my conscious mind catches on. Now, when it tries to get my attention, I listen.
When I was ten, my father tried unsuccessfully to sell his old 35 mm camera to our local camera store. The gentleman behind the counter informed him that nobody was interested in such junk any longer. So Dad gave it to me.
The town I grew up in on the Gulf Coast of Florida was filled with abandoned buildings. They became my first subjects. Exploring and photographing these relics was my favorite Sunday-morning activity. I loved the look and feel of the old lath-and-plaster walls and the heart-pine floors. The buildings were also full of leftover bits and pieces of the former occupants’ lives. I began to collect items that would otherwise have been lost to the landfill: toys, jars of nails, fixtures, and, most prized of all, old photographs. For more than twenty years I salvaged pieces of local history.
As I approach my seventh decade, I’ve been forced to face the inevitable downsizing of my life. Today I back my pickup into the barn and start tossing old belongings into it. All goes well until I find myself holding a soap dish from the Miramar Hotel, torn down in the mid-eighties after years of rancorous public debate, but not before I’d spent several days poking around its rooms. I can’t toss this just yet. Then another treasure in the truck’s bed catches my eye. It gets taken out as well. As does another, and another.
An hour later I park the now-empty pickup in the yard and head into the house for lunch.
“How’s the barn cleanup coming along?” my wife asks.
“All done,” I reply. “I feel better already.”
At the beginning of June I was finishing some repairs on our family’s converted bus before we hit the road for a much-needed vacation. One of my last jobs was to repaint some areas that had been scratched on previous adventures. The can of gray paint was hard to open, and I ruined the lid as I wrenched it off. Later I transferred the leftover paint into another container and left the empty can on our back porch.
The night before we departed, I got the itch to touch up a different color and headed into the basement to get the teal paint. On my way down, I noticed that the discarded can I’d left on the porch was now on the stairs. Why in the world would my husband put an empty paint can there? I grabbed it and tossed it into one of the trash bins awaiting morning pickup.
The next afternoon I was in the back of the bus playing a thousandth game of Uno with my two children when my husband asked, “Hey, have you seen the paint can that was on the basement stairs?” I told him I’d put it in the trash. He then showed me a photo on his phone of the can with a fat stack of cash sitting inside it.
Feeling numb, I asked how much money had been in there. He asked, “Did the trash truck come yet?” We both knew it had. It always came early in the morning. Then he answered me: “Six thousand dollars for the construction crew.” I called the city disposal department, but they explained that the trash gets compacted before it’s brought to the dump. Nothing can be recovered.
I had to sit down. My husband kept asking me to say something. When I was able, we talked without shaming each other about how we each had contributed to this accident. We accepted that the cash was gone and agreed to be more generous with our time and love. The rest of the drive was uncommonly quiet.
We had learned a valuable lesson: that in a split second, everything that we think is ours could be gone.
In 1982, while finishing a master’s degree in art therapy, I was promised a position at the school where I had been interning, so I blithely didn’t bother to look for other job opportunities. A week before graduation the school principal called me to her office, handed me a glowing reference letter, and said she was sorry, but the art-therapy position had been defunded.
Everyone else in my class had been scrambling to find work, so when I started my own job search, there was nothing left. After several months I was offered a part-time position at a residential-treatment home for “socially and emotionally disturbed” adolescent boys. That was the professional term for them. Informally many people called them, even within their hearing, “throwaway kids.”
Excited just to get a job, I didn’t ask what the position might entail. On my first day my supervisor apologetically explained that the previous employee in my position, who was not trained as an art therapist, had been extremely popular with the boys and staff. The boys had been angry about his departure, my supervisor told me, so I might face some resistance.
I also learned that there was no art-therapy room: I was expected to bring my work to the boys. I tried but didn’t make much progress. In frustration I told my supervisor I needed a place to hold sessions. He said there was an unoccupied room in the basement, next to the wood shop; it just needed a little spiffing up. Armed with a sponge, a bucket, and a broom, I descended the basement stairs — and immediately saw these tools would be woefully insufficient. The windowless room was covered in dust and cobwebs, the floor buried under six inches of wood scraps, broken bottles, and what I could only assume were rodent droppings. The wood-shop teacher came out of his room and said, “I guess you know what they think of you.”
I did. But I needed the job. So, armed with the determination of youth and my belief that only art therapy could help these boys, I cleaned the room, set up tables and chairs, scrounged for supplies, and begged friends and relatives for any materials they could spare. (You guessed it: there was no budget for art supplies.)
The first time I brought a group of boys into the room for a session, one of them said, “This ain’t an art room. It’s the junk room.” I said that it had been a junk room, until I had found the art room that was hiding in it. The boys scoffed but stayed for our session.
When there were no supplies, we used discarded toilet-paper and paper-towel rolls, old boxes, bits of fabric, broken crayons. Soon the staff began asking me before they threw anything out, to see if I could use it. The boys made a game out of seeing what they could make from things no one else wanted. We had art shows, and the boys made gifts to give. In time the program gave me a budget, but we still kept what we liked to call our “surprise” supplies — things we didn’t know were special until we found them.
I left that job to have children, and later I got a position at a children’s psychiatric program serving low-income families. It was not an art-therapy job, but I was determined to bring art therapy to the program. People soon learned that I would take anything they didn’t want anymore. My office grew to look like the closet of a whimsical collector. Though we had store-bought art supplies, the kids seemed to gravitate toward “Ms. Mary’s stuff.” They came to understand that sometimes people throw a thing away because they don’t have the vision to see the value in it.
I retired almost a year ago. It still gives me a pang to put a paper-towel roll into the recycling bin. I think of what it could have become.
Lumberton, New Jersey
© Gloria Baker Feinstein
In 1970 I had just graduated from college with a degree in English education and had recently begun a relationship with my college roommate, Millie. I’d had no idea I was gay until I’d started dreaming of her nightly in the bunk bed of our dorm. We both struggled to accept the idea that we were in love with a woman. Back then, homosexuality was listed as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. We decided to present ourselves to the world as just friends.
When Millie moved to Tallahassee, Florida, to begin graduate school, I went with her and took a teaching job in a rural area. The school was too far from Tallahassee to commute, so I rented a mobile home. Millie and I saw each other on weekends.
A single female teacher in her early twenties (with short hair, to boot) got the rumor mill going. People whispered about me at school and in the town, but there was no evidence to prove my sexual orientation one way or the other.
I began to notice most mornings that someone had rifled through the trash outside my mobile home. Mine was the only garbage dumped on the ground, and the cans were raccoon-proof, so the culprits were obviously human. I can only guess that someone was looking for evidence I might be doing something morally “wrong” — and, at that time, illegal. Did this person see it as their duty to inform the community of the danger I posed? What were they actually looking for? Porn? Love letters? I never knew.
A gay man who taught at the high school was similarly scrutinized. We both finally told people we were engaged to be married. The students never bought it, but the other teachers and the parents found it easier to accept our story than to continue to worry.
I left that job when the year was up, and my male colleague did as well.
A friend of mine told me that she grew up “white trash,” moving from one trailer park to another in small towns across the South. Her family had to scrounge for everything — hygiene products, hand-me-down clothes, even food. Part of being white trash, she said, is that you’re good for nothing. That’s what the neighbors and the kids at school told her. She was considered dirty and looked down on for being poor.
“But you’re not poor anymore,” I told her. “And you were never white trash, either.”
My friend wears expensive clothing and perfume. At Christmas she never gives gifts that cost less than fifty dollars. She has a master’s degree and is a better mother to her kids than her mother was to her. But she also eats things that make her sick. She doesn’t exercise. She has untreated depression that has almost killed her. “I’m not taking care of myself,” she has told me time and again.
I don’t know what to do for her. In my eyes she is an accomplished, worthy person. But it seems she will always see herself the way others once saw her: as good for nothing.
St. Petersburg, Florida
When my mother found out I was doing poorly in eighth-grade math, she went to the school to talk with my counselor, Mrs. Harris. They agreed I needed help but not on how to provide it. Mom said she could tutor me at home using the textbook; Mrs. Harris explained that, due to the school district’s contract with the publisher, she could not give us a textbook. Seeing my mother’s reaction, Mrs. Harris then reached into her desk drawer, pulled out a used copy of the text, tore off the cover, and handed it to my mother.
The evening tutoring sessions at our gray Formica kitchen table continued throughout the semester. Mom was a patient, encouraging teacher. Thanks to her, I received a passing grade in math.
Many years later Mom sat on the edge of her bed in the nursing home, telling stories from her youth in Upstate New York. Some stories I knew well, but one was startling: she hadn’t finished high school. Her father had abandoned her mother, her younger brother, and her. To earn money for groceries and coal, Mom had left school and taken a job selling candy, nuts, and other snacks at the train station. She’d never divulged her educational deficit.
Decades after Mom’s passing, I stand at the blue recycling bin holding the math book. Strings poke out of its spine. Notes penciled in childish cursive run into the margins. I have little need for it. But who can throw away love?
San Carlos, California
In prison one man’s trash really is another man’s treasure. Before my incarceration, when I finished a magazine, it went into the recycling bin. Old clothes were donated or thrown away, depending on their condition. In prison, where I am blessed with more resources than most, there is a queue of guys waiting for my magazines. My used books are placed atop the centrally located fire-extinguisher box and are gone within minutes. In my four and a half years inside, I’ve given away three sets of “grays” — sweatshirts and sweatpants — as well as four pairs of athletic shorts. I’ve also given away shoes when the property sergeant failed to collect my old pair. Could I have worn my clothes until they were threadbare? Yes, but I want to share with others while the garments are still serviceable. The number of men forced to wear their “blues” — state-issued jeans and scrub tops — is high enough. I offer what I can.
I am also fortunate to hold an inmate job in an office, and staff sometimes throw away useful (to us) items and uneaten food. Over the last two months I have salvaged a few ziplock bags and given them away. These bags are a godsend for organizing small possessions. Recently I recovered fast-food breakfast burritos, sausage biscuits, and hash browns — manna for those who eat cafeteria food every day. One of my most delightful finds was an apple. This is gold in a prison, where the only fruit we get is applesauce.
I know it amuses the staff when I hold up an item and ask if I can have it, but I feel no shame in taking their trash.
We were scavengers, my sister Kathy and I. One of our favorite things to do was garbage picking. Back in the seventies, when both of us were in grade school, our little town had special garbage-pickup days when they accepted bulk items families no longer needed. Kathy and I waited impatiently for special garbage pickup. The night before was like Christmas Eve. We’d talk about what route we would take. Would it be better if we split up? Which neighbor would have the best stuff? Finally our mother would shout up the stairs, “I don’t want to hear another peep out of you two! Go to sleep!” The next morning we’d wake early and run to the garage for our bikes.
On one of our expeditions I found an old black-and-white television that would fit perfectly in our shared bedroom. Our family had only one TV, complete with rabbit-ear antennae. If there was a PBS show my dad happened to be interested in, or if one of the sports teams my mom liked had a game, then that was what we all watched. Don’t get me wrong: we kids had opportunities to watch our shows, too. But wouldn’t it be great if my sister and I had our own TV?
My heart pounded as I pedaled around the block, searching for Kathy. I finally caught up with her, rifling through piles of old board games with missing pieces.
“I found us a TV!” I shouted. “Come on before someone else gets it!” We raced back and found the prize still there.
We couldn’t carry the TV on our own, so we hid it under some other discarded items, then rushed home and made our case to our dad, who was out in the garden. He must have been having a good day because we convinced him to drive us back to pick up the TV. He was sure the TV wouldn’t work, but when he set it on his workbench and plugged it in, a blurry picture flashed onto the screen, and sound came from its speakers. Kathy and I jumped up and down with excitement.
We got to keep that old television — not in our room, but in an unused bedroom downstairs. For many years Kathy and I ate our lunch there while watching Bozo’s Circus.
Other valuable finds included movie posters, jewelry boxes, travel pamphlets (we dreamed of becoming travel agents), and old wallpaper-sample books that we used to redecorate our dollhouse. There were also some unmentionables. Our neighbor had quite the sex life, judging by what we found in her trash. One man tried to hide his girly-magazine collection by burying it beneath clothes in a taped box, but we found it. We presented the magazines to our shocked mother, who informed us that we were done picking for the day.
My sister and I have long since moved away from home, but our dad has taken up the mantle of family garbage picker, finding scrap wood for the birdhouses he makes, a church altar rail that he turned into a handrail for the front door, and a set of discarded dumbbells he uses to work out. He has even sent kitchen appliances, a hand-held transistor radio, and an old Game Boy to my son, who enjoys dismantling broken things.
I wonder if some other boy or girl found our old TV the day our mom finally convinced our dad to throw it away.
The thirty-gallon garbage bags piled in the bed of Papa’s truck and the back of the family minivan were filled with our baby clothes, stuffed animals, hallway runners, kitchenware, shoes, tennis rackets, Shania Twain CDs, and photos of my brothers and me hunting for Easter eggs or building blanket forts at family get-togethers.
Mom’s efforts to keep our home on Third Street had ended when a man had shown up and announced that he’d bought our house at a foreclosure sale. We had a week to get out, which meant a week to move the results of Mom’s propensity for shopping. She shopped constantly: at Goodwill and garage sales and Kmart and T.J. Maxx. We had rows and rows of full bins in the basement and piles of garbage bags stuffed with her purchases. We were instructed not to throw anything away. It would all go into a storage unit.
By the time we were done, I’d thrown a few things at the walls and cried. I was a teenager, but I’d been parenting my mother for years — ever since she’d started doctor-shopping for pain-pill refills. I’d driven her to the ER for detox enough times to start rotating hospitals, not wanting her to become a “regular.”
Mom ultimately lost her battle with mental illness, and my family threw open the door to her storage unit, resolved to carve into Trash Mountain, a monument to the life she’d wanted to have. It took us months to reach the wall at the opposite end of the room.
By the time I walked through the empty unit, I understood that the real trash had never been the junk packed into garbage bags. The real trash was every bad hand Mom had been dealt, every time support systems had let her down. I said aloud then the words I’d refused to say to her as a kid: “I forgive you.”
Des Moines, Iowa
We called it the Memorial Day Massacre. My fiancé and I had owned the farm for only a few months, and we had fallen asleep watching a movie and failed to shut the door to the chicken coop. Come morning there were chicken carcasses everywhere and a couple of traumatized survivors who would never lay an egg again. We started the grim task of rounding up the mauled dead and some who seemed to have died of pure fright. The trash bins filled up with bodies. We felt awful.
Since it was a holiday week, trash pickup was delayed until Saturday. Problem was, our wedding was taking place at the farm on Friday, with a reception on Saturday. By Wednesday the warm weather had ripened the carcasses, and vultures had started circling. As you can imagine, carrion feeders were not part of my wedding theme.
On Friday, to spare our guests the grim reality of farm life, we stowed the offensive bins in the barn. The wedding went well, even though the skies opened up just as the ceremony was starting. Thankfully my fiancé had made a last-minute decision to move the wedding indoors. I was encouraged by the thought that I had found the right man to marry. We went to bed that night full of joy and a little too much wine.
Just before sunrise my new husband sat straight up in bed and exclaimed, “Trash!” Drowsily I wondered why he was calling me that. Then I heard the garbage truck on the next road over. We leapt out of bed and bolted for the barn.
We got the bins to the curb just in time. Panting, we looked at each other and laughed. “How’s that for a wedding night?” he asked.
They say to “begin as you mean to go on,” and that’s what we did. Over the last twenty years we’ve faced disasters with humor, challenges with cooperation, and mistakes with forgiveness. We’ve made some wonderful memories. All the rest is just trash to be taken to the curb.