We had just moved to France, and my wife Nancy and I were unpacking on a quiet August afternoon, busy making the rental apartment into a home for our uprooted family. At our feet our three-year-old, Claire, sat leafing through books. Far from friends and relatives, she was clearly tired of living with packing boxes.
“Please read me this,” she said, thrusting a thin blue book in my direction. It’s Fun to Speak French was stenciled 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 weren’t practicing what they preached. I told her my grandfather had written in the book.
“Daddy!” Now she was confused. “Why did your father do that?” As I sat down to tell the story, my thoughts traveled 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, and toughest, day of our annual drive west to our grandparents’ house 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 over the lawn, then gathered us in his strong arms.
As a young man, Grandad had been a comer: a farmer, teacher, stockman and, at age 26, a Nebraska state senator. The trajectory of his life was straight up—until a massive stroke felled him at age 44 and crippled him for life. Sometime between his stroke and my boyhood, he had made peace with his life. His scrape with death had convinced him not how awful life is, but how precious. His zest for living made him a playmate Vicky and I fought over.
Each morning we pressed 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 eighty,” the only bit of farmland Grandad 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 convulsions of laughter.
“I’m going to be a farmer too,” I announced proudly one afternoon as Grandad sat playing solitaire at his desk.
Laying card upon card, he asked, “What are you going to grow?”
Suddenly I thought of a favorite pastime—spitting watermelon seeds as far as possible. ” How about watermelons?” I asked.
“Hmm, there’s a crop I haven’t tried!” Brown eyes sparkling, 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 shuddered, feeling the first chill of autumn separation.
“Let’s do it now!” I said, leaping out of my seat. “What do we do?” First, Grandad said, we needed seeds. Remembering the slice of watermelon I’d seen in Aunt Mary’s refrigerator, I raced out the door and across the yard to her house. In a flash I was back, 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,” was Grandad’s only reaction. Then he showed me how to prepare the ground and plant the seeds in a semicircle. “Don’t crowd them,” he said 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 supper time, 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 realized I hadn’t, 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 Grandad’s 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 ride back east. 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 another of Grandad’s jokes.
Holding the book Grandad 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 took off 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 any way; 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 Grandad 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 awkwardly unloaded it and, with a painful bend, 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. In his refusal to let his crippling hinder him, he had planted some thing that neither time nor distance could uproot: a full-throttle 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.