Coming Up Watermelons
When a practical joke becomes a message of hope passed down through generations
When a practical joke becomes a message of hope passed down through generations.
IN 1990, WE HAD just moved to Paris from New York, and my wife, Nancy, and I were unpacking on a quiet August afternoon, busy making the apartment into a home for our uprooted family. At our feet, our three-year-old, Claire, sat leafing through books.
“Please read me this,” she said, thrusting a thin blue book in my direction. It’s Fun to Speak French was stencilled on the spine of the faded cover. My grandfather, who had grown up speaking French, had given me the book when I was a child, and my parents had unearthed it from somewhere and sent it along with us.
Claire pointed to a page with line drawings below the bars of an old French children’s song: “Do You Know How to Plant Cabbages?” In blue ink, someone had crossed out “cabbages” and written “watermelons!”
“Daddy! Did you do that?” Claire asked, looking up with an expression of shock. We had only recently convinced her not to write in books, and suddenly here was proof that her parents hadn’t practised what they preached. I told her that my grandfather had written in the book.
“Daddy!” Now she was confused. “Why did your grandfather do that?”
As I sat down to tell the story, my thoughts travelled a well-worn road back to Nebraska.
“ARE WE ALMOST THERE?” my sister, Vicky, demanded from the back seat of our family’s ’54 Ford station wagon. It was the last day of our annual drive west to our grandparents’ house, which was perched above a creek bed in Tecumseh, Nebraska.
For a few weeks each summer, Vicky and I had all the adventure we needed—working the old pump to see what kind of bugs came up in the water, choreographing fireworks displays in the back lot, escaping the midday sun under a canvas tarp thrown over two clotheslines. When we pulled into their driveway, my grandmother burst from the back door to greet us. Behind her, Grandad hobbled across the lawn, then gathered us in his arms.
As a young man, my grandfather Walther Henri Kiechel had been a farmer, school superintendent, stockman and, at age 26, a state senator. The trajectory of his life was straight up— until a massive stroke felled him at age 44 and disabled him. Sometime between his stroke and my boyhood, he had made peace with his situation. His scrape with death had convinced him not how awful life is, but how precious. His general enthusiasm made him a playmate Vicky and I fought over.
Each morning we piled into Grandad’s car for the drive to the post office, entertained along the way by the incessant patter of his nonsense rhymes: “Hello, Mrs. Brown. Why are you going to town?”
INSTEAD OF BORING ME WITH THE HOW OF GROWING THINGS, MY GRANDAD MADE SURE I FIRST EXPERIENCED THE WOW.
Best of all were trips to “the 80,” the 80 acres of farmland my grandfather had managed to keep; the rest had been sold, or repossessed, to pay the bills in his years of recovery. Vicky and I would climb into the barn’s hayloft and, from an old cow stall below, Grandad made mooing noises that sent us into fits of laughter.
“I’M GOING TO BE a farmer, too,” I announced proudly one afternoon as my grandfather sat playing solitaire at his desk.
Laying card upon card, he asked, “What are you going to grow?”
I thought of a favourite pastime— spitting watermelon seeds as far as possible. “How about watermelons?” I asked.
“Hmm, there’s a crop I haven’t tried yet!” He put his cards aside. “Better get your seeds in the ground quick, though.”
It was mid-August, and the days were growing shorter. Soon we would pack up for the drive back to Virginia—and school. I felt the first chill of autumn separation.
“Let’s do it now!” I said, leaping out of my seat. “What do we do?”
First, my grandfather said, we needed seeds. Remembering the piece of watermelon I’d seen in the refrigerator, I raced to the kitchen, returning with five black seeds in my hand. Grandad suggested a sunny spot in back of the house to plant the seeds, but I wanted a place where I could easily watch my plants’ progress skyward.
We walked outside, into the shade of a huge oak. “Right here, Grandad,” I said. I could sit with my back against the tree, reading comic books as the watermelons grew. It was perfect.
“Go to the garage and get the hoe,” he said, then showed me how to prepare the ground and plant the seeds in a semicircle. “Don’t crowd them,” he added quietly. “Give them plenty of room to grow.”
“Now what, Grandad?”
“Now comes the hard part,” he said. “You wait.” And for a whole afternoon, I did.
Nearly every hour I checked on my watermelons, each time watering the seeds again. Incredibly, they had still not sprouted by suppertime, although my plot was a muddy mess. At the dinner table, I asked Grandad how long it would take.
“Maybe next month,” he said, laughing. “Maybe sooner.”
The next morning I lay lazily in bed, reading a comic book. Suddenly, I remembered: the seeds! Dressing quickly, I ran outside.
What’s that? I wondered, peering under the oak. Then I realized—it’s a watermelon! A huge, perfectly shaped fruit lay nesting in the cool mud. I felt triumphant. Wow! I’m a farmer! It was the biggest melon I’d seen, and I’d grown it.
Just as I began to figure I hadn’t, really, Grandad came out of the house. “You picked a great spot, Conrad,” he chuckled.
“Oh, Grandad!” I said. Then we quickly conspired to play the joke on others. After breakfast, we loaded the melon into his trunk and took it to town, where he showed his cronies the “midnight miracle” his grandson had grown—and they let me believe they believed it.
LATER THAT MONTH, Vicky and I got into the back seat of the station wagon for the glum return trip. Grandad passed a book through the window. “For school,” he said seriously. Hours later, I opened it to where he’d written “watermelons”—and laughed at Grandad’s joke.
Holding the book my grandfather had given me that day long ago, Claire listened quietly to the story. Then she asked, “Daddy, can I plant seeds, too?”
Nancy looked at me; together we surveyed the mountain of boxes waiting to be unpacked. About to say “We’ll do it tomorrow,” I realized I had never heard Grandad say that. We set out for the market. At a small shop with a metal rack filled with seed packs, Claire picked one that promised bright red flowers, and I added a sack of potting soil.
On the walk home, while Claire munched a buttery croissant, I thought about those seeds I’d planted. For the first time I realized that Grandad could have met my childish enthusiasm with a litany of disappointing facts: that watermelons don’t grow well in Nebraska; that it was too late to plant them anyway; that it was pointless to try growing them in the deep shade. But instead of boring me with the how of growing things, which I would soon forget, he made sure I first experienced the wow.
Claire charged up the three flights of stairs to our apartment, and in a few minutes she was standing on a chair at the kitchen sink, filling a white porcelain pot with soil.
As I sprinkled seeds into her open palm, I felt for the first time the pains my grandfather had taken. He had stolen back into town that August afternoon and bought the biggest melon in the market. That night, after I was asleep, he had unloaded it and placed it exactly above my seeds.
“Done, Daddy,” Claire broke into my reverie. I opened the window over the sink and she put her pot on the sill, moving it from side to side until she found the perfect spot, “Now grow!” she commanded.
A few days later, shouts of “They’re growing!” woke us, and Claire led us to the kitchen to see a pot of small green shoots, “Mommy,” she said proudly, “I’m a farmer!”
I had always thought the midnight miracle was just another of Grandad’s pranks. Now I realized it was one of his many gifts to me. He had planted something that neither time nor distance could uproot: a fullthrottle grasping at the happiness life offers—and a disdain for whatever bumps get in the way.
As Claire beamed with satisfaction, I watched my grandfather’s joy take fresh root in her life. And that was the biggest miracle of all.