“Gramps!” Esther Sue ran toward the white-haired man, then stopped short, afraid to hug him. This was hardly the hard-muscled giant she had visited every summer at the farm. He looked like a small, wrinkled, worn-out imitation. So instead of greeting him with the usual bear hug, Esther Sue took his hand and guided him to the comfortable overstuffed chair in a corner of the living room. At least his hands were the same—big and sandpapery yet gentle from years of tending the soil.
“I’ll fix some lunch,” Mama said. “Then you might take a little rest, Papa.”
“A rest?” Gramps sneered at the idea. “All my life I worked from sunup to sundown, and I never needed a nap. I’d feel like some baby, needing a rest.”
Esther Sue patted his hand. “But the train ride must have been awfully hard, Gramps. Maybe you need a rest just this once.”
“Maybe so, little Susie. Or maybe I’m just not good for anything, now that I’m old. Having to sell the farm—I might as well have cut off my right arm, it pained me so much.”
“I know. I’m going to miss it something awful too.” Esther Sue remembered the long, happy days of previous summers, helping Gramps weed the melons and snapping beans under the shade of the crab apple tree. Now they would both be stuck in the city for the entire summer.
As the weeks went by, Gramps looked older and older, more and more tired.
“He needs something to do,” Mama said. “And he misses the open spaces and green growing things. You take him to the park, Esther Sue.”
So almost every day after school, even though it was still damp and chilly, Esther Sue and Gramps walked to the park. They passed rows of tall apartment buildings, the old vacant lot full of trash and dead weeds, and Murphy’s Market and Deli. Then they came to Bradley Park, just an empty patch of winter-brown grass and leafless trees at this time of year. Sometimes on the way home, Gramps stopped at the market and bought a couple of apples. He’d hand one to Esther Sue, and they’d chomp on them the rest of the way to the apartment.
“They’re not like the ones back home,” Gramps would complain. “They’ve lost all their crunch.”
As the weeks passed, Gramps and Esther Sue started looking for signs of new life. The vacant lot turned green with new weeds that almost hid the empty cans and broken glass scattered there. Little weeds sprouted between the cracks in the sidewalk too. And leaves started to pop out on the bare branches of the trees in the park. But Gramps looked more sad, more tired, more stooped.
“Sorry, Gramps,” Esther Sue said one afternoon. “I can’t go to the park today. I have to write a paper for school. It’s going to be a tough one.”
“That’s OK, little Susie. My arthritis is acting up, anyway.”
Esther Sue knew that he didn’t really care about going to the park. After years of walking on good black farm soil, Gramps didn’t like asphalt, and now that spring had come, he wanted to plant, not just look at trees and grass. So when he asked about her homework assignment, she was glad to give him a chance to think about something besides the home he had had to leave.
“I have to write an essay, Gramps: ‘What I can do to save the earth.’ The trouble is, there isn’t much one kid in the middle of Chicago can do.”
“Let’s see. You and your mama take all the old newspapers and cans to the recycling place, and you always write on both sides of a paper before you throw it away. That helps.”
“Oh, Gramps, I know those things are important, but everyone will write about recycling. I want to do something different.”
“Different like what?”
“Well, I read this article about a whole class who went out and planted trees, hundreds of them, to help reseed a forest. But that was in the mountains out west. A city kid can’t do anything like that.”
“No, I don’t suppose they want any more trees in that park of yours.” Grandpa scratched his head as he thought. Then he jumped up. “Come on, we’re going for that walk.”
“But what about my paper?”
“Come on. The fresh air will get your brain working.”
Esther Sue dragged along behind Gramps. What was he thinking? Why did he have to go today? Didn’t he know how important her paper was? But Gramps hadn’t been so lively in a long time. He even whistled as he walked along. When they got to the vacant lot, he stopped. “This is it,” he said. “This is your paper.”
She gave Gramps a blank look. What did this dirty old lot have to do with saving the earth? Gramps just stood there, staring at some vision, expecting her to see it too.
“Is it trees, Gramps? Do you expect me to plant trees here. I don’t think—”
“Not trees, little Susie—a garden! A garden with snow peas and eggplants and fresh red tomatoes. Maybe even a few pansies to pretty the place up.”
“A garden here? Oh, Gramps, do you think we could?”
“I know about gardens. There’s plenty of space and enough sunlight. We’d have to clean it up and see about getting some water, but I think we could manage that.”
“We’ll have to find out who owns the land and get permission.”
“We can go to city hall tomorrow.”
“I don’t think we can farm the whole lot, Gramps. It’s pretty big.”
“We’ll invite the neighbors to help. I can teach them.” The old man stood almost as tall as he had in the fields at the farm. “Just think, garden-fresh vegetables for the city folks here!”
“Just think, a garden right here in the middle of Chicago!”
“A place to dig.”
“It will be a great paper.”
“It will be a good summer.”
“I can make a difference, right here in the middle of Chicago.”
Both of them whistled all the way home.