Tag Archives: family

Dumpster Diving

“Is that trash?” asks Nancy, pointing to a large barrel on wheels.

“Help yourself,” replies the Home Depot guy.

So Nancy begins pulling lumber pieces out and loading them into our cart. Not fancy lumber, but the rough stuff used to protect the good stuff from the steel bands that hold the bundles together for transport.

“You have a place for that in your studio?” I ask. (Translation: That’s not going in my shop.)

“Yes.” She makes two or three more trips from the trash barrel to our cart.

“I repeat: You have room for that in your studio?” She gives me a look—part smile and part not—and I walk away.

Later, in the car as we chuckle about it, I tell her I read that smile to say, I”m going to keep this up until you get that disapproving look off your face. She does not deny it.

I married a dumpster-diver. Actually, I married into a family of dumpster-divers and hoarders. When I first met him, Nancy’s father still had a coffee can of bent and rusty nails he’d salvaged from his father’s hoard. (That story may be apocryphal; memory is a funny thing.)

I suppose there has never been a shop or studio whose occupant thought it was big enough. But even against that standard, Nancy and I have far too little space in our respective realms relative to the equipment, materials, and projects they contain. (That was true even before our son brought home a 280Z for restoration and began scattering parts and tools everywhere. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.)

So the struggle over what to keep and what to throw away is intense in our house. Since Nancy grew up in a household of creative reuse and since many of her projects tend toward collage, her predilection is to save. Mine is to toss and reclaim some space. I confess, many’s the time I threw away a lumber scrap only to need it a week later. Many’s the time I have asked Nancy, “Do you have ____?” and she does. And yet, other scraps I have saved for years without finding a use for them, until they’d mildewed beyond salvage.

In the ensuing week after the Home Depot episode, Nancy spent a great deal of time rearranging her studio and moving some little used stuff out as she gears up for some larger projects. Yet the salvaged sticks still reside in a place of honor inside the door. Except for the ones I borrowed today—temporarily—for a project of my own.

The premier dumpster-diving story in our family involves a rescued dolphin, Greek pastry, and a stroller. We were in Florida on vacation, and on our way to see Sunset Sam at the Clearwater Aquarium. Sunset Sam had injuries that prevented his release back into the wild, and had been taught to paint with a brush in his teeth. He was a regular on our vacation agendas until his death a few years later. On this visit, Jay was about two. He fell asleep in the car before we arrived, so we decided to abort the Aquarium stop and let him nap, while we went to Tarpon Springs for Greek pastries. Nancy was driving, and I had just mumbled something about how uncomfortable it would be to carry a sleeping two-year-old around in the heat when she suddenly did a u-turn on a residential street and stopped next to a pile of trash awaiting pickup. A stroller. Rather, a rusty stroller frame, the canvas seat rotted out. Jay’s car seat fit perfectly in the frame. We used that stroller frame for the rest of our trip. When I threw it into a dumpster as we packed up for our return to Tennessee, Jay cried. His mother’s son.

Gardening

My parents were born into large depression-era farm families. Growing a substantial portion of their food was an economic necessity and a way of life. “The garden” was the place where you grew potatoes and tomatoes, corn and beans and squash and a dozen other vegetables. Enough to feed ten people. All winter long. A place of hard work.

When they married and raised their own family, my parents brought that way of life with them, if not the necessity. In my childhood, “the garden” was still the place where hard work was converted into foodstuffs. In early adulthood, I went through a back-to-the-land phase and my own large vegetable gardens.

That phase ended. Lack of need, lack of interest (burnout perhaps?), and a series of houses that lacked adequate space and sunlight left my gardening days behind me.

Ascending, Nancy's garden
Ascending, Nancy’s garden

Enter Nancy. Over the past decade or so, she has put her artist’s eye toward creating places of beauty outside our home. Using largely native plants, tons of native stone, some clever hardscaping, a small pond, and, yes, lots of hard work, she has transformed a blah yard into a garden of beauty. In the process, that word, “garden,” has come to signify for me the ornamental, not the vegetable kind.

Sure, my childhood home had ornamental trees and shrubs. My mother grew flowers. But in “beds.” The word, “garden,” was reserved for food. This shift in what gardening means to me has been subtle and largely unconscious, but nearly total. When I say I am a gardener, I never think of tomatoes, although many of my listeners probably do.

I’ve lately become aware of another subtle shift, this time in my relationship to the act of gardening. “Our” ornamental garden has been, and largely still is, “Nancy’s” garden. Her desire, her vision, her initiative. I was the, mostly willing, assistant—the muscle, her sherpa.

Then, a year ago, shortly after my (second) retirement, I took on the chairmanship of the committee that cares for the Memorial Garden at my church, the place where the ashes of deceased members are buried or scattered. And I took on this role at a time when the need for change had come due. It was time to expand burial space, remove some overgrown trees and shrubs, repair some damage. Unlike “Nancy’s” garden, which is in a maintenance phase with its basic form established, the Memorial Garden is in a process of moderate to major redefinition. And I find myself actively engaged in that definition, in helping to create the vision and carry it out. I have taken ownership of the process of gardening in a way that I still have not done with our garden at home.

Caterpillar on coral bells, Nancy's garden
Caterpillar on coral bells, Nancy’s garden

When I was a child, I was a garden helper. As a young adult, raising my own cantaloupe and sweet potatoes and peas, I was a gardener. And then I was neither. In middle age, when Nancy began her garden, I reverted to garden helper. Now, I am a gardener again. With that title, I claim, or reclaim, an avocation. But the title goes deeper for me now. I find that in accepting the title, I also accept stewardship of something that is not mine. The plants, the infrastructure, the aesthetic, the soil itself are to be husbanded, cared for, nurtured. And I find that sense of stewardship creeping into my labor in Nancy’s garden as well. I am pulling weeds not for me, not even for Nancy, but for the garden itself. Interesting changes I did not seek and would never have predicted.