My son, Cory, will leave our Northern California home to start college back East in the fall, prompting other mothers to offer condolences about my soon-to-be-empty nest. Though they expect me to break into tears, my overriding emotion when my youngest departs will be relief. I will finally be freed from the constant scrutiny of the ever-vigilant eco-warrior I raised.
I can do nothing right in my teenage son’s eyes. He grills me about the distance traveled of each piece of fruit and every vegetable I purchase. He interrogates me about the provenance of all the meat, poultry, and fish I serve. He questions my every move—from how I choose a car (why not electric?) and a couch (why synthetic fill?) to how I tend the garden (why waste water on flowers?)—an unremitting interrogation of my impact on our desecrated environment. While other parents hide alcohol and pharmaceuticals from their teens, I hide plastic containers and paper towels.
I feel like I’ve become the adolescent, sneaking around to avoid my offspring’s scrutiny and lectures. Only when Cory leaves the house do I dare clean the refrigerator of foul-smelling evidence of my careless waste—wilted greens, rotten avocados, moldy leftovers. When he goes out to dinner, I smuggle in a piece of halibut or sturgeon, fish the stocks of which, he tells me, are dangerously depleted. Even worse, I sometimes prepare beef—a drain on precious water, my son assures me, and a heavy contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions.
While other parents hide alcohol and pharmaceuticals from their teens, I hide plastic containers and paper towels.
What a relief I will feel to be out from under the fiery gaze of my personal sustainability meter-reader!
Although I did not mean to raise a Mr. Sustainability, it must be admitted that I set him on the path. I tried to instill the imperative of tikkun olam, Hebrew for “repairing the world.” When Cory was eight, we served the homeless in a local soup kitchen. In middle school, he played guitar for retirement-home residents. In high school, he spent a June morning pulling weeds from a riverbed and all summer nursing a poison oak rash covering his arms and legs—an irritant not unlike the imprecations of an environmentally zealous son.
I admit that when he displayed a propensity for science, I could not suppress the Jewish mother in me and tried to convince my boy that he could best help people by becoming a doctor. But I never meant to guilt-trip him into thinking he had to save the whole entire planet—and certainly not from people like me.
I began to sow the seeds when I decided to buy organic food. I figured it was healthier, and I wanted to do my tiny part to stop contaminating our soil and groundwater with toxic chemicals. I explained this to Cory as he sat in his high chair while I fed him Earth’s Best organic pears from a 2.5-ounce jar. We were listening to Raffi sing “Evergreen, Everblue” as he implored us to “help this planet Earth.” “At this point in time,” he sang, “it’s up to me, it’s up to you.”
Raffi’s pleas blended with similar entreaties in Dr. Seuss’ the Lorax. The shortish, brownish, oldish, and mossy Lorax spoke for the trees, the Truffula trees on the brink of extinction, exhorting my son to take action. “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better,” I read to Cory. “It’s not.”
We discussed the book’s lessons on our strolls down the Whole Foods aisles. As I pushed him in the shopping cart, I explained that we would buy the green apples because they were organic and not the red ones because they were grown conventionally, with bad bug-killing chemicals.
The first hint that my indoctrination was working came when Cory was 12. We were in Costa Rica, about to hike through the rainforest, and he refused to apply bug repellent. Despite my dozen monologues about mosquitoes carrying deadly diseases, he declined the oily liquid. As payback for my antipathy toward all things chemical, my boy spiked a 103-degree temperature and briefly appeared on the brink of death from dengue fever.
I wasn’t the only one talking to Cory about our ailing planet. His paternal grandmother was so worried about climate change that one summer when the family gathered in Cape Cod, she gave us each a single beige cloth napkin and said it would have to suffice for the entire week.
I am reminded of the napkin incident when my son wipes his oily, pizza-stained hands on his jeans or an upholstered dining room chair, or when he leaves a sticky trail of locally grown organic orange drippings from the kitchen to the dining room because he wants to save a napkin.
I have stopped buying oranges.
I was happily raising an environmentally conscious boy until he began high school. Then he studied marine biology, joined a club that monitored the health of a coastal reef by counting sea creatures, and met his best friend forever.
Cory’s BFF (my term, not Cory’s) had already taken on the role of eco-warrior. He worked on a successful campaign to ban plastic bags in our town—Fairfax, California, that hippie haven—and lobbied against GMOs. He drove an electric car; once, when my son was a passenger, it ran out of charge on a rural road eight miles from home. (I had to go pick him up.)
Cory and his BFF built a self-sustaining aquaponic garden to raise vegetables and fish for their high school cafeteria. They were more interested in protests than parties and attended a compostable toilet-making workshop instead of a dance.
I knew Cory had met his match when the BFF came for dinner (vegetarian, naturally), emerged from the bathroom with his hands dripping, and declined a towel. Neither paper nor cloth would be necessary, he insisted, while I watched the water from his hands trickle onto my hardwood floor. Like an untrained puppy, he appeared blind to the puddles he left in his wake as I followed behind him mopping at his heels.
Once Cory’s BFF began exerting his influence, my son started to see me as the armchair environmentalist I am, happy to hang a “Pesticide-Free Zone” sign with a ladybug on my front porch but reluctant to give up meat, fossil fuels, or hair dye.
“Why did you buy asparagus when it’s out of season and grown in Mexico?” he asks, brandishing a limp spear. “It’s not even really asparagus.”
Cory and his BFF joined 350.org, a group so named because scientists believe that to preserve a livable planet we must cut carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million (from 400). During his senior year in high school, Cory planned to join a demonstration against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and trespass on Chevron property.
That meant getting arrested.
Landing in jail at 17 years old presented a few problems, most notably that Cory—who weighed 100 pounds and whose bespectacled face remained as hairless as it was the day he was born—would be easy prey for Juvenile Hall bullies. A lawyer working with the protesters convinced Cory to wait until he at least turned 18 so he could go to jail with the rest of the adult protesters.
Having dodged dengue fever and juvie, Cory came up with a new idea. He wanted to attach handwritten GMO labels to fruit and vegetables at Safeway.
“You could be arrested for vandalism,” I cried.
“So?” he responded, shrugging his shoulders.
“You could wind up really having to do time.”
In a desperate bid for comic relief, I took Cory and his BFF to see the Book of Mormon in San Francisco. At intermission, I purchased a plastic bottle of Crystal Geyser water. As I plunked down my $3.50, it dawned on me that I might be making a dreadful mistake. When I returned to my seat, my son looked down his nose at the half-filled bottle, crossed his arms over his chest and one leg over the other, then swiveled his body and his legs away from me. He remained in that position for the entire second act.
As we left the theater, he nudged the empty water bottle with his fist and asked, “Why did you buy that?”
“I was really, really, really thirsty,” I whispered.
Soon after, Cory revealed plans for a home remodeling project. On our front porch, he wanted to do something called “peeponics.”
Once he explained that it involved storing our household urine as fertilizer, I was too upset to be able to hear more.
"There will be no pee-saving in this house," I exclaimed.
"NO,” my son retorted. “I'm doing peeponics!"
"You're going to put your pee on my porch?” I asked.
"You can use it to fertilize your garden,” he replied calmly.
"You want to pee on my garden?"
"You bought a plastic water bottle in front of my friend.”
He’s right. I should not drink from plastic bottles. I should lower my thermostat in the winter, drive less, buy less, and pay more attention to the consequences of my materialism. But contemplating the world from my son’s perspective is exhausting, and I will breathe the air of a free woman once he dislodges himself from my porch.
It’s no surprise Cory feels the weight of the planet’s future on his shoulders. He answered the call from Raffi, the Lorax, and his grandmother. Now he is calling on me and my generation—Baby Boomers who thought we could fix the mess we helped create by doing little more than buying a Prius‚ to seriously examine the way we live.
As he goes off to college to learn how best to contribute to turning around climate change, I am proud of him, worried about him, and, in so many ways, I am going to miss him.
I brace myself for his departure as I would for the end of a hard-to-put-down book. I dawdle over the final pages and re-visit favorite passages. My infant boy falls asleep cradled in my arms; he stands on a kitchen step-stool and mixes together pancake batter; he plays guitar and sings a protest song on a concert stage.
The next time Cory takes the stage he’ll be 3,000 miles away. When I think about the distance, a desert of grief leaves me aching to connect with my baby. Then I find him in the kitchen inspecting recently purchased produce. “Why did you buy asparagus when it’s out of season and grown in Mexico?” he asks, brandishing a limp spear. “It’s not even really asparagus.”