Mulch Ado

How moving a compost pile
lifts a family’s spirits

By Cassie Bustamante

“Oh, you’re a fitness trainer,” my doctor said. “This’ll be easy. Just imagine you’re doing a crunch.”

After a few more core exercises, my wriggling baby boy entered the world. We spent two glorious days in the hospital with doctors and nurses guiding our every move. Babies don’t come with user’s manuals, but bookstore shelves are lined with guides, and websites are loaded with tips for navigating those first years. We got this, my husband and I conveyed through exhausted, new-parent eyes.

Sixteen years later, our eyes are a different kind of tired and the silent glances exchanged are more anxious than adoring. There are few, if any, field guides to parenting the modern sulky teen — something that explains the array of inexplicable mood shifts or identifies the meaning behind a glare or sigh. Toss the world of social media and a pandemic into the mix and not even the so-called parenting experts are experts anymore.

Last spring, we were all feeling pandemic fatigue in our house. Missing the connections that come through sports, my son was sinking into a worrying place. I wanted to toss him a rope, but I wasn’t sure I had anything strong enough. After all, I’d never lived through the experience of being a teen boy, let alone during the time of COVID.

Each morning, I’d tote my youngest male prodigy to preschool, reflecting on the unsettling silence of his older brother during the short drive, wondering what it would take to unlock the happy kid we knew was in there. Ironically, an answer to my prayer lay closer than I knew — almost at the end of our own driveway.

A mountainous mulch pile stood at the foot of our neighbor’s yard. As I passed by the house several days in a row, I noticed the mound wasn’t shrinking. Something American politician and orator Robert Ingersoll had said back in the 1800s — as true today as ever — rang in my head: “We rise by lifting others.”

I texted my neighbor: “Let me send Sawyer down to help you with that mulch. He’s had a ton of experience hauling and spreading it and knows what he’s doing.”

When he arrived home that afternoon, I cheerfully pounced. “I volunteered you to help our neighbors spread mulch!” I exclaimed. He rolled his eyes and began muttering excuses not to go. Finally, he shrugged and agreed, if only because spending time there meant not having to deal with me. Sometimes you take a win any way you can get it.

Two days later, he made his trek down the street, garden gloves in hand. Watching him go, a tightness crept over my chest and I choked up a little, knowing this was what he needed. Call it a mother’s hunch that we sometimes rise by lifting others’ mulch. Plus, it’s a scientific fact that once a mother has a child, she can no longer keep her feelings, opinions or the occasional proud tear inside.

When Sawyer returned home, red-faced and sweaty, he was wearing something I hadn’t seen in some time — the beginnings of a smile and a glimmer of pride in his eye.

I tried to play it cool even though I could barely contain my happiness.

“Well,” I casually inquired, “how did it go?”

If we don’t have plans tomorrow,” he said, “is it OK if I go back to help again?”

I told him that would be just fine with me.

The spark was back.

And so was that proud little tear.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is the digital content manager for O.Henry. Subscribe to her witty roundup of Greensboro events in our weekly newsletter, O.Hey, at

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