By the time Nicky got to the street where he lived, he was almost jogging. When he reached his house, he dashed inside, slamming the door a little too hard, and called, “I’m home, Old Nonno!”
There was no answer.
Nicky rushed through the house, looking for Old Nonno. Finally he found Old Nonno sitting in a rocking chair on the back porch, enjoying the warm spring sunshine. “Hello, Old Nonno,” Nicky said as he went up to his great-grandfather and put his arms gently around the old man’s neck to give him a hug. “Are you ready?”
Old Nonno smiled at Nicky through his watery, cloudy, 102-year-old eyes. They were kind eyes, understanding eyes that had seen much during his lifetime. “Of course I’m ready!”
Both his grandfather and his great-grandfather had lived with Nicky and his parents. Grandfather was called Nonno, so great-grandfather was called Old Nonno. Then two years ago Nicky’s grandfather had died. But it had been his great-grandfather who had taken the time to talk and play with Nicky. He couldn’t imagine a better friend than Old Nonno.
By the time Nicky changed into his work clothes and went back outside, Old Nonno was already in the garden with the wooden boxes filled with the tomato plants that the two of them had started weeks earlier from seeds.
Nicky carried a bucket of water to the garden and Old Nonno started forcing his thick, pointed stick into the soft soil and pulling it to one side to form a hole. Nicky poured water into the hole, then held a six-inch tomato plant in it while Old Nonno pressed the soil around the plant’s roots.
When they finished the second row, Old Nonno paused. He picked up a handful of the black dirt and slowly straightened up, a faraway look in his eyes. Some of the dirt trickled between his fingers. Nicky looked at Old Nonno’s gnarled knuckles, swollen and misshapen by arthritis, and he wondered if being old hurt. Then Nicky looked up into Old Nonno’s face and saw that it wasn’t pain that had caused him to stop. It was his memories.
Old Nonno had been a teenager when he’d left his parents in Italy to live in the United States. It had taken many years of hard work before he’d been able to buy a small vegetable farm just outside a big city where, for almost fifty years, he had raised millions of tomatoes and other vegetables. Now that land was covered with streets and lawns and trees and homes.
Old Nonno bent over and patted his handful of black dirt around the last small tomato plant, then turned to Nicky. “Let’s hurry and clean up here, Nicky, so that we can go tend our magic garden.”
Fifteen minutes later they were upstairs in Old Nonno’s room. Except for the door, the closet, and the window, all the walls of Old Nonno’s room were covered with bookshelves filled with books that the old, cloudy eyes could no longer read.
“Your mind is a magic garden,” Old Nonno often said to Nicky. “It’s a magic garden because anything that you plant there grows into either seeds or weeds. Every day you choose which one you plant in your magic garden.”
Old Nonno sat down in a big chair and used his hands to lift his feet onto the footstool. From the table next to him he took a small framed picture of his wife and looked at it lovingly. Nicky had never known Old Nonnì. She had died more than twenty years before Nicky was born.
Nicky sat in his chair on the other side of the table and opened up Old Nonno’s Bible to the bookmark. Every day, the first thing was for Nicky to read to Old Nonno from the scriptures.
Nicky found the next marked verses, and read aloud: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
“A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted” (Eccl. 3:1–2).
As Nicky closed the Bible and put it back on the table, old Nonno said quietly, “Isn’t that beautiful, Nicky? That’s one of my favorite passages.”
Nicky nodded, although he wondered if he’d really understood what he’d just read. He decided to think about it later. For now, he’d just continue reading. “We finished Huckleberry Finn yesterday, Old Nonno. What do you want to read now?”
“That one,” Old Nonno said, pointing.
Nicky got the large book, opened it to Chapter One, and started to read. He looked at Old Nonno, who had his eyes closed and a happy smile on his face.
Throughout the spring, Nicky and Old Nonno pulled weeds in the outside garden and supported the growing tomato plants with wooden stakes. By summer the little yellow flowers on them became green tomatoes that grew larger every day. Nicky and Old Nonno tried to guess which of two tomatoes that they were especially watching would ripen first.
The day came when one of the tomatoes was fully ripe. As soon as Nicky’s baseball practice was over, he hopped on his bike and pedaled hard for home. He and Old Nonno were going to pick the tomato, eat it with their lunch, then walk to the ice-cream store and buy a treat. But when Nicky pulled into the driveway, his mother was outside waiting for him.
“Nicky,” she said softly, “something has happened to Old Nonno. Your father went with him in the ambulance to the hospital a few minutes ago, and I’ve been waiting here for you.”
Nicky dropped his bike on the lawn and got into the car. As his mother started to back the car out of the driveway, Nicky called out, “Wait!” He got out of the car, ran back to the garden, and tenderly picked the ripe tomato.
The hospital was only three miles away, but the drive seemed to take forever. Maybe it’s nothing serious, Nicky hoped.
At the admittance desk Nicky’s mom asked the emergency room nurse about Old Nonno. A few minutes later, a doctor in pale green hospital pants and shirt came through the metal swinging doors with Nicky’s dad.
“There was nothing more we could do,” the doctor said. “But if it’s any consolation to you, Mr. Mariani seemed to die peacefully.”
Nicky’s mom started to cry, and so did Nicky. Finally, when his tears subsided, Nicky realized that he was still holding Old Nonno’s tomato. He took it to the nurse’s desk. “Maybe somebody here would like to have this,” he said, handing her the tomato and trying to smile.
The nurse took the tomato and smiled back kindly.
The morning of the funeral the sun shone brilliantly in the blue sky. A good day for farming, Nicky thought as he walked between the rows of tomatoes—Old Nonno’s last crop. Just a few months ago Old Nonno had poured a bunch of tiny seeds into the palm of Nicky’s hand. Now those seeds had turned into rows of healthy plants with bushels of beautiful tomatoes on them.
Nicky went to Old Nonno’s room to wait while his parents finished getting dressed for the funeral. He walked past the bookshelves, stopping to read some of the familiar titles. Books. Hundreds of books that Old Nonno loved. Thousands of seeds for their magic garden. Nicky sat in Old Nonno’s big chair, picked up the picture of Old Nonnì, and looked at her smiling face. Wherever Old Nonno is, he decided, he’s with Old Nonnì, and they are happy together.
He glanced up at the books again as he suddenly understood the real magic of Old Nonno’s magic garden. The books were still here in this room, but Old Nonno had taken the “seeds” in them with him!
A similar thought came to Nicky in the cemetery as he watched the casket being lowered into the grave. It wasn’t really Old Nonno inside that casket; it was just the body that Old Nonno had left behind, an old, worn-out body.
As the casket settled into the grave, tears clouded Nicky’s eyes, and a dull ache persisted. He was really going to miss Old Nonno. But through the pain, some familiar words came into Nicky’s mind: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” When he had read them before, they were only words. Now those words had meaning. “A time to be born, and a time to die …” Other seeds that had been planted in Old Nonno’s magic garden came to Nicky’s mind: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22).
Suddenly it was becoming clear to him. Everything has a purpose. Even death has a purpose, and it is not really that scary. When he had been helping Old Nonno plant seeds in his magic garden, he had also been planting his own magic garden of special memories that would last forever.