Early one summer, my mother started talking to me about compost. She was making noises about getting a compost tumbler and trying to put it together—a terrifying prospect, frankly—and so my husband Bill and I headed this plan off at the pass and sent one to her in late August, as a surprise, just ahead of her 80th birthday.

We timed the delivery with another surprise: our visit to her place in middle Georgia from our home in southern Indiana. The plan was for us—“us” meaning “Bill”—to assemble the thing and situate it in her garden, to her satisfaction.

The composter arrived on a Thursday; by the time we rolled up on Friday afternoon, she had unpacked all the parts and laid them out in a corner of her sun room, beneath the little metal-topped table where she sits to take her blood pressure every morning.

—Black discs and panels of recycled plastic. —Metal legs, unattached. —60-plus bolts, and 60-plus washers.

Even Mama, who likes to figure things out for herself, was flummoxed by the array.

And so Bill put it together while she and I went to the grocery store. The local chain where she used to take her trade, a place called Harvey’s, had finally succumbed to inevitable defeat. Now, the closest grocery is a not-quite-super Walmart a half-hour away, via country highways that run between sprawling fields of cotton and millet and sunflowers. A “trip to the store” usually means at least three stops, including tracking down good collards somewhere, and stopping by my sister’s nearby farm “to see what she’s up to.”

Mama and I were gone for almost three hours. When we returned, the composter was assembled and ready to use, tucked into a corner of the garden, on a thick bed of pine straw. By the time Bill and I left two days later, the thing was already half full with tomato stems and trimmings, paper towels from kitchen clean-ups, eggs shells, toilet paper rolls, a tiny heel of old parmesan, tea bags, coffee grounds, and a heavy load of collard stems.

I wrote some composting notes for her to keep on the side of her refrigerator, about how to balance the contents of the bin so that she wouldn’t wind up with a slimy, stinking mess: those rotting vegetable scraps plus paper products, along with “brown stuff” like dry leaves and twigs. (I doubt that she still checks the list for guidance; my guess is that she just glances fondly at my handwriting as she goes about her kitchen business, and gets sentimental.)

Over the years, our phone calls have covered a familiar repertoire. What sewing projects are taking up space on her dining room table; variations her superb pimento cheese formula; how she’s still working through squash that my late step-father put up in the chest freezer before he died. How dry and hot it gets in Middle Georgia, how low the neighborhood lake has gotten, and how carefully she must water the sandy soil of her densely planted kitchen garden.

Now, compost is in the mix. She sends me emails, long stream-of-consciousness disquisitions about what she’s added to the bin, and how she has started another pile for end-of-season yard clean-up, including the dry skeletons of huge okra plants that grew as big as small trees in her prolific garden.

When she called one day, I asked her how it was going, her compost experiment. “It’s so dark, it doesn’t look like the soil in my garden at all,” she said, and the sentence ended in at least two exclamation points.

I see her in my mind’s eye, sliding open the little door to dump in a bowl of potato skins, carrot tops, and bits of less-than-perfect cauliflower. Then turning the tumbler, feeling its surprising weight. Just as I do at my own house, rolling the drum of my own, larger composter, obsessed as I am with the mystery of how everything breaks down, ultimately and inevitably.

LuAnne Holladay grew up in Georgia but lives in Indiana. She carves blocks for printing, manipulates and tests the limits of paper, and makes blank books, where all of her writing starts.