My grandma ended her 102 years peacefully on April 15, 2014. Ever since then, reels of her life have been playing haphazardly though my mind.
I see Grandma plucking small, sour cherries from the tree in the corner of her backyard. She looks up and strikes a bargain with the birds, “Ok, you can have the fruit at the top if you leave me what’s at the bottom.”
I see myself standing next to her as she rummages through her basement refrigerator. She pulls out cottage cheese containers filled with frozen blocks of chunky applesauce, matzah ball soup, or gefilte fish. The contents of each tub are penciled in spidery European handwriting on masking tape.
Around us, the 2x4s of the unfinished basement walls serve as makeshift shelves for her expansive collection of more cottage cheese containers and sherbet tubs. I don’t remember my grandma owning much official Tupperware. There are also mustard, pickle, and jelly jars she will refill with tart cherry preserves from her trees.
I see her walking down a gravel bar in rural Missouri wearing red flip flops and a black wraparound swimsuit. I hear her tremolo at the top of a Russian tune she sings at a wedding, chin tilted upward. I see the blue veins of her knobby hands as I hold them in the hospital.
The collision of Grandma’s death with Earth Day, exactly one week later, caused a shift in the way I viewed these scattered moments of her life. I found myself thinking not just about the legacy Grandma left, but just as important, I found myself contemplating the things she didn’t leave behind.
We live in an era now known as the Anthropocene for the geological-scale marks humans are leaving on the earth. I can’t help but wonder how my marks on the planet stack up against my grandma’s.
At least in one category, this turns out to be something I can quantify in an average sort of way. The Carbon Information Analysis Center stores carbon emission data by country stretching back to 1751. Using census data, it calculates per capita information, which doesn’t account for differences in the ways we live our lives, but is still instructive.
Before 1950, the carbon footprint of not just my grandma, who lived in Eastern Europe, but also people living in the United States, was functionally zero. Since then, each US resident has released four to six metric tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, a wobble that’s barely perceptible on the upward sloping graph of lifelong emissions.
Born during the late 1960’s oil craze, my carbon footprint started before my feet touched the ground. From the moment Grandma laid eyes on me and declared me “her princess,” I was adding carbon to the atmosphere.
Grandma was 88 years old before her carbon footprint equaled mine today at age 46. When I’m 62–and hopefully not even a grandma myself–my carbon footprint will equal that of my grandma’s century-plus life.
If I live as long as Grandma, I will add almost 700 metric tonnes more carbon to the atmosphere than she did. A car emits about five tonnes a year, so if everyone in my four-person family stopped driving for the next 35 years we could offset this difference. Another way to make up the discrepency would be to plant the entire property of our suburban house with an orchard of 125 cherry trees.
On the morning of Earth Day, I stood outside my kids’ elementary school holding a hand-painted cardboard sign that read, “Recycle your Styrofoam here.” Students and parents piled old, pitted coolers, electronic packaging, and leftover fast food containers into my minivan. Like plastic, polystyrene foam is made from petroleum, but it’s even more persistent in the environment, and recycling it is costly. In Austin, our curbside recycler won’t accept it at all.
My daughter and I drove the squeaky load to a recycling center downtown where a recent UT grad helped us sort the waste into the right bins. She let my daughter hold a sample of the ceramic-like condensed product that polystyrene foam becomes before it is reused as insulation.
It’s tricky to figure out the carbon footprint of the load of foam we hauled away from the school. One report calculated that 2,000 foam cups are the equivalent of 0.43 tonnes of CO2, which might be about what we recycled. Regardless, this Earth Day haul won’t make a dent in the graph of anyone’s carbon footprint.
But I hope one thing it does is leave a reel in my daughter’s mind of being squished in the car with a load of petroleum trash that didn’t become pollution.
I hope the memory leaves the same impression on her that my grandma’s sprawling container collection and her conversations with the birds left on me: Though it might require a little effort, we can find smart ways to take care of things that look like waste. Our life is well measured by the things we don’t leave behind. This planet isn’t ours alone.
Next year on Earth Day, I’m going to plant my first cherry tree.