Like many parents during the early days of the pandemic, Kristen Sposeep struggled to find a fun-but-worthwhile project to occupy her 5-year-old son Griffin last summer.
“Griffin really wanted to work on a garden, so we got a big box in the backyard to start growing things,” Sposeep told Wednesday Journal.
String beans were his favorite thing to grow last year, but vegetables weren’t the only things budding in the backyard of the Sposeeps’ Oak Park Avenue home. Shortly after setting up their garden, the green thumbed-Spooseeps noticed that the adult children of their next-door neighbors had also started planting a garden across the fence separating the yards.
“One just graduated from college and the other is normally at med school, but they came home because of the pandemic,” said Sposeep of the neighbors.
Despite the difference in age, Griffin quickly bonded over a shared interest in gardening with medical student Emma Dunne and her brother Will, the recent graduate.
“They started sharing information and seeds and talking,” Sposeep recalled.
The gardeners kept safely separated by physical distance due to COVID-19, but Griffin’s attachment to Dunne grew, which did not go unnoticed by his mother.
“He would be like, ‘I love her. I want to marry her. She’s amazing,’” Sposeep said.
Dunne grew quite fond of Griffin as well, calling their friendship “organic.”
“It was a blast getting to know Griffin and having an outdoor study break to look forward to,” said Dunne.
Along with string beans, the Sposeeps planted lettuce, kale, carrots, corn — even watermelon.
As the plants began to produce, the two began exchanging tiny tokens of their friendship, according to Sposeep. Griffin would wake up from his nap to find Dunne had left him little presents of cherry tomatoes.
“We brought them potato seeds, starters and things,” said Sposeep.
Dunne also received homemade challah. Griffin would help make the bread at preschool, but the family continued baking challah while in lockdown. She even got a bouquet of flowers from Griffin.
Now that Dunne is back at school, her little neighbor hasn’t forgotten about her. Dunne remains a star in Griffin’s eyes. They’ve even struck up a pen pal correspondence.
“Do you stare longingly out the window, hoping she comes into the back yard every day?” Sposeep asked her son, who replied with a sheepish, “Yeah.”
Dunne told Wednesday Journal that the experience last summer reminded her of her own childhood with older neighbors.
“My brother and I grew up crafting and cooking with our neighbors to the south,” Dunne said. “Gardening with Griffin is one more of those fun activities made possible by neighbors in Oak Park.”
Griffin has already started working on his garden this summer and his little sister is starting to get involved.
While Dunne won’t be around as much, her brother Will has stepped up in her absence. Will Dunne has been making the trek from his Chicago apartment to help Griffin with his vegetable patch.
“That meant everything to Griffin,” said Sposeep, tearing up.
Griffin has shown greater interest in eating vegetables since starting the garden, and the neighborly friendship has brought joy during an otherwise difficult and lonely period.
The friendship has certainly meant a lot to Griffin, but he doesn’t quite grasp how much the kindness of the two young adults has impacted his parents.
“Will and Emma are just wonderful people,” Sposeep said. “I can only hope that my kids would treat someone the way they’re treating mine.”