From his window in a tight double cul-de-sac in Overland Park a few years ago, Jack Shelton gazed out in wonder at the deft navigation of the trash truck.
So he went out to compliment the driver, Tasha Cornett, who makes trash pickup day something he’s looked forward to ever since.
“Is there some kind of trash truck rodeo?” he asked her Thursday morning as she paused during another 12-hour shift collecting garbage along what she estimated would be 1,000 stops.
But this isn’t a tale about the emergence of an exotic new sport, and, really, it’s only nominally about the promise flashed by the wrestling 12-year-old named Gabriel who helps make this a sports column.
In Topeka in March, Gabriel, or Gabe, as Cornett's son goes by, finished second in the under 150-pound class in the Kansas state folkstyle championship after he suffered a broken elbow in the match.
True to the spirit of the sport, he stepped to the podium before he went to the emergency room.
He later required surgery but is eager to get back at it this fall. The other night at their home in Kansas City, Kan., he playfully said even if it was the worst pain he’d ever had, it’s “probably not going to be the worst in the future.”
“If he really has the heart and drive to keep doing it, he could get his way paid through college wrestling and he could go on and possibly wrestle in the Olympics or at a national level,” said Todd Evans, who has worked with Gabriel for years as head coach of the Turner Youth Wrestling program. “The sky is the limit if he keeps at it.”
Which is great.
And we’ll echo the sentiments expressed by Shelton and his wife — who have befriended Tasha and on trash days put up a “Go Gabe” poster in their storm door.
But this is about something else. It’s a Mother’s Day story about an essential reason for Gabriel's opportunity: a single mother of three (who shares custody) who honors her craft as the means to provide for what she cherishes most.
A woman whose story is her own but stands for nurturing what we might all take time to appreciate — whether you still have your mother or lost her recently, as I did.
“Her spirit is inspiring,” Shelton said of Cornett.
As Cornett all at once swiveled her head and negotiated hairpin turns and beeped back and worked the arm of the truck on Thursday, she reflected on why she does this typically solitary work in sunshine or rain, in the numbing cold and stifling heat.
“Where I’m at in life … I couldn’t really ask for more than what I have,” she said, adding that maybe she spoils the kids some. “To me, they’re the only thing I have to live for.
“So if I go to work and I know that all my bills are paid and nothing is late and I’m not going to lose out on (anything) and I have groceries in the house and I have some extra money, then why not spend that on your kids? … (And) they don’t get everything they want. Like, we don’t shop at the malls or anything like that.”
She allows as how oldest son Daniel is “a lot jealous” because of all the money she spends on Gabe’s wrestling career, but she doesn’t apologize for it, either.
“Because it’s something that he loves. And like I tell all my kids, if you find something that you’re interested in, I’ll spend all the money in the world,” she said. “If you find out that you’re not interested in it, at least you tried. But Gabriel’s very good at wrestling. It’s what he’s been doing and I support that 100 (percent).
“I can’t even say that if I didn’t have the money I wouldn’t support it, because I’d just get another job.”
This sort of job more or less appealed to her as far back as childhood, when the Raytown South High graduate became fascinated with trucks and wondered why more women weren’t driving them.
So she went to get her commercial driver’s license on her 21st birthday, she said, and a little while later, she started driving for a roofer. She liked the work, throwing hefty bundles of shingles and all.
But sometimes she was away for weeks at a time, like after Hurricane Katrina. She decided something had to change when she realized daughter Shalynn, now 9, had started looking toward Tasha’s sister helping out as her mother figure.
“And I was (becoming) just a person visiting!” she said.
So in 2014 she started working for Deffenbaugh, which later was purchased by Waste Management. And she was glad to be in the truck she calls “Betty” the other day even if the arm was sticky and gave her extra trouble with a couple of feisty trash bins.
“That one has dead bodies or something in it — sorry,” she said, laughing. “That one weighed way too much.”
She typically gets up at 4 a.m., and the kids teased her the other night about how much she works.
But for a woman who takes pride in saying she doesn’t have credit cards because she only wants to buy what she can pay for, there are a million reasons it’s important she toil as she does.
For one thing, there’s the sheer pride in her work, which resonates with Paul Howe, senior manager of community relations for Waste Management.
“We need and are looking for more Tashas,” said Howe, noting the company’s initiative to attract more women to its workforce.
Then there’s this: “What are you representing to your children? What examples are you giving to your children?” she said. “Because nothing comes free.
“Let me rephrase that: Nothing should come free. You should have to come out and work your tail off every day. As hard as you can, every day. And then your kids will want to do that. That’s why I try to do what I do. ‘If my mom can do it, I can do this. I got this. It’s all right.’ ”
That’s why the chores at home — including cooking — are divided not by three but by four … to include her.
“You can’t be a leader of a group,” she said, “and not do what they’re doing. You have to encourage it by being involved.”
So she encourages it all, whether it’s Gabe also learning piano (by ear) well enough to play “Faded” in a school talent show the other day or Shalynn checking out dance and tumbling and soon … wrestling.
After all, Shalynn has already been a wrestling dummy for her brother. And even if she is tender enough to give you a huge hug the first time you meet her, she is plenty tough-minded.
The other day, when she cut her knee, she went outside and literally rubbed dirt on it to try to make it better.
“‘No, honey, that’s a figure of speech,’ ” her mom told her. “‘Go get the peroxide.’ ”
For Mother’s Day, Tasha figures the kids will make her dinner — most likely a squash casserole.
But the truth is she doesn’t need this day to feel appreciated.
Because the kids, she says, thank her for going to work before every meal and before they go to stores and just about all the time.
“They thank me,” she said, “at every turn.”
Which among other things you might take from them makes for a fine hint for the rest of us, whether in the moment or in memoriam.