Com­ing Up Wa­ter­mel­ons

When a prac­ti­cal joke be­comes a mes­sage of hope passed down through gen­er­a­tions

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Contents - CON­RAD KIECHEL FROM READER’S DI­GEST, MARCH 1994

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?”


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.

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