Talking trash this holiday season

Steve Aude
Steve Aude

The childhood memory is dreamlike with a halo of fuzziness surrounding activities that are as clear to me as they were decades ago. I was somewhere in the kitchen with my mom. This kitchen could have been any one of a half dozen around the country and the world we called home as a military family.

My mom, usually calm and collected, suddenly became excited looking for something in her purse she couldn’t seem to find fast enough. She found what she is looking for and said something like the garbage men are about to leave and rushed out of the kitchen. I saw my mom handing some dollar bills to the men picking up our garbage.

It is a mystery why this memory has stayed with me all these years. Maybe it is that the garbage men, or sanitation workers as they are now called, reliably do their job – house to house, neighborhood to neighborhood, day to day and week to week in rain, sleet or snow. Or perhaps it is that they remind me of the soldiers I served with in the Army who routinely performed difficult, thankless jobs in all kinds of weather with no expectation of reward or recognition.

I carry on my mom’s tradition right before the holidays as extra cash comes in handy and a lot of extra trash gets put out for pick-up. As it so happened, my wife and I were especially appreciative of our trash pick-up team. The week prior I had been out of town and coached my wife on putting the trash out in my absence. She was up early as is required if you are the type who puts their trash out the day of pick-up. She was sipping a first cup of coffee when the telltale sound of big truck engines and back-up beeping signaled the garbage truck was passing by.

Her first panicked thought was that it was too late to get the trash out on the street. Even so she dragged the big black garbage bags to the curb and looked up the street on the off chance the trucks might return. Dejected and almost in tears – yes, missing the trash truck can bring one to tears – she started back to the house.

Then the faint sound of a truck engine far up the street met her ears. My wife ran back to the curb and started waving excitedly at a garbage truck that appeared far up the street at the top of the hill. The truck could have turned left, continued on its route and disappear from sight leaving my wife having to explain why a week’s worth of trash was stacked up in our garage. After a pause of what seemed like an eternity the big trash truck shifted noisily into gear and lumbered down the street in her direction. Her eyes met the smiling face of the garbage truck driver as he slowed to a stop in front of our house.

A week later, three surprised faces of gratitude and grins met me at the curb on a brisk morning as I handed out cash gifts to the crew picking up our trash. They were so appreciative of what was a small gesture on my part. The driver of the truck actually climbed down from his cab and shook my hand. The timeless phase, “ … tis better to give than receive …” was never more true.

I thank my mom for making a lasting memory out of her simple act of giving those many years ago. In this season of thanks and giving, my hope is that those who work and serve us behind the scenes are surprised by acts of giving and gratitude. We’ll all be the better for it.

Steve Aude is a research psychologist who lives in Leavenworth.