The River

a story in honor of Earth Day

This story was inspired by this photo of the Chicago River on St. Patrick's Day. Photo by Knowledge Seeker, via  Wikimedia Commons .

This story was inspired by this photo of the Chicago River on St. Patrick's Day. Photo by Knowledge Seeker, via Wikimedia Commons.

            Gramma says the river used to be blue. Once a year, she says, they made it green for St. Patrick’s Day, but the rest of the year it was blue.  I think she’s pulling my leg, ‘cuz everyone knows water’s green, just like they know the sky is brown. That’s how the world was made.

It’s like when she puts her thumb between her fingers and tells me it’s my nose. Or when she counts backwards from ten on my hand to convince me I have eleven fingers. Grammas can be tricksy. ‘Specially mine, ‘cuz she’s smart.

Gramma used to be a schoolteacher, back when there used to be schools. I know that’s not a trick because our history lessons talked about the old days and how kids went to schools to learn instead of learning at home on their tablets.  That sounds pretty good to me. I like the idea of spending all day with my friends, all of us learning the same stuff at the same time. It’s gotta be better than spending all day alone with a screen on my lap. Sure, my big brother is in the room with me, but that’s pretty much the same as being alone.

The thing about hanging out with Gramma is that she gives homework. That’s something else from the old days. Kids would learn in school but they’d have assignments to do at home. We only get homework when we go to Gramma’s house. Actually, only I get homework when we go to Gramma’s house. Garrett never does. Must be a big brother thing.

This time, my homework is to look through Gramma’s old photo books for pictures of the riverthe one she says used to be blue.  Of course the pictures are in books. Gramma wouldn’t put her pictures on her phone or tablet where I could type in a search for what I needed. That would be too easy. No, instead I have a stack of books a mile high to look through. Thanks, Gramma.


* * * * *


I hate to say it, but Gramma’s photo books are pretty cool. One had photos of me from even before I was born.  Another had photos of Garrett, but only back to when he was baby. Gramma says Mom has the only picture of Garrett in Mom’s belly.  I found pictures of Mom and Dad when they got married and pictures of Gramma with Grampa, before he died. In some of them, the sky looked blue.  Blue sky? Does Gramma know how to use Photoshop?

About halfway through the stack I found a book called TRAVELS, and Gramma sure had a lot of them. The Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon, the Alamo—Gramma had pictures of all of ‘em. And pages and pages of pictures of Chicago. She musta travelled there a lot. Which makes sense, ‘cause it’s the closest city to here.

The Picasso statue in Chicago's Daley Plaza, referred to as "the dog statue" in the story. Photo by J. Crocker, via  Wikimedia Commons .

The Picasso statue in Chicago's Daley Plaza, referred to as "the dog statue" in the story. Photo by J. Crocker, via Wikimedia Commons.

I found the dog statue, the one Gramma says is a woman—but that’s just another one of her tricks. She had lotsa photos of the Bean, and the spitting faces, and the ferris wheel, and the zoo. I turned the page and found three pictures of Gramma and Grampa on the beach, the lake behind them—with blue water. Since when was the lake blue? It’s always been the same brownish green…hasn’t it?

I turned the page again, and there they were. The pictures Gramma wanted me to find: the river, blue in the first picture, and then turning green in the second, as a boat poured dye into the water.  

Holy cannoli!

Gramma wasn’t tricking me. The water really did used to be blue. And it looked better that way.

So what happened? If it wasn’t turned green on purpose like in the picture, why is it green now? And not even a pretty bright green, either. Now it’s a dull dirty green. No wonder Gramma won’t let us near it.

I ran downstairs and asked Gramma what happened. She told me to look it up. She said it was the second part of my homework assignment. Really? She couldn’t just tell me? That’s so not fair.

This time, at least, she let me use her tablet. I called up WebSeek and typed in “blue water.” That gave me a list of vitamin drinks. Not what I needed.

I searched for “green water.” No luck. I tried “river” and just plain “water.” Nothing helpful.

I showed Gramma what I kept finding and begged for a clue. When it comes to begging, I have to say, I’m pretty darn good. I learned from the best: our dog, Maxie. Gramma didn’t stand a chance.

It didn’t take long. She told me to look up “pollution.” She even spelled it for me: p-o-l-l-u-t-i-o-n.  I started with the online dictionary, which said pollution was “the action of contaminating the environment with man-made waste.”

I asked Gramma what “contaminating” means. Guess what? She told me to look it up. I did. It means “to make impure or unfit.”

So, pollution is the action of making the environment impure or unfit with man-made waste. I had to turn that over in my head for a while. My brain needs to play with words over and over before they make sense.

“You’re being awfully quiet over there,” Gramma said, noticing that I was sitting still and silent—not my usual way of being.

“Just thinking,” I answered.

She musta noticed my scrunched eyebrows ‘cuz she asked, “Do you want to talk about it?”

I shook my head.

But then, after turning over the words again, I changed my mind. “So people made the water green with pollution?”

Gramma nodded.

“Did they do it on purpose?”

Gramma sighed. Then she scrunched her eyebrows as she answered. “Yes and no. People did figure out that the water and the air were being damaged by pollution, but some people didn’t care. Those that did care weren’t able to fix things. The environment was being damaged faster than they could clean it up.”

“So they stopped trying?”

“No. They’re still trying, but the problem is really big—as big as the whole Earth. To fix it, everyone needs to help—not just the few who are working on it.”

 “How? How do we help?”

Gramma tried to hide her smile, but it didn’t work. She’s tricksy, but she’s not sneaky. She told me how she recycles and how she doesn’t use plastic bottles and how she doesn’t put medicines or paints down the sink or in the toilet. She told me she doesn’t have a car, because car pollution makes the air dirty and brown, and she always uses canvas shopping bags instead of plastic ones.

That was a lot of things Gramma did, but it didn’t seem to be doing very much. I mean, the water is still green, and the sky is still brown. So I asked, “Does it help?”

Gramma shrugged. “A little bit. If everyone did these things, it would help even more.”

“But it wouldn’t fix it?”

“No, it wouldn’t. Not completely.”

“What would it take to fix it completely?”

“Well, a lot of the pollution came from big companies, so they would have to find other ways to get rid of their waste and they would have to find ways to clean up the waste they already dumped. But…” Gramma stopped. It was pretty obvious there was something she didn’t want to say. Of course, that meant I had to find out what it was.

“But what?”

She put down the book she was reading and turned to face me. Then she sighed before saying, “But it’s possible we can’t fix it completely. The Earth doesn’t heal the way people do. It’s possible we hurt it so badly that it will never heal all the way.”

I didn’t like the sound of that.

Then Gramma gave me another homework assignment: find ways to help the Earth get better and choose one to do.

That’s one homework assignment I don’t mind doing. I just hope it’s enough.


Click here to read the story behind "The River."