My childhood was anything but magical. My mom died the summer after fourth grade, after an extended illness. So I spent a lot of time in a fantasy world, with a hairbrush as a microphone, belting Broadway show tunes Merman style and choreographing Gypsy Rose Lee stripteases to “Let Me Entertain You.”
I pretended to be Judy Garland, singing “You Made Me Love You” to Clark Gable’s picture. I sang “I Wanna Be Loved By You” like Ginger on Gilligan’s Island. I imagined what it was like to be a Brady … or a Von Trapp … anyone but the chubby kid in the peach stretchy pants whose books and hat were stolen every day in the schoolyard, then tossed from kid to kid and abandoned on the cement when the bell rang.
So when I had a little girl of my own, I was determined that her childhood would be magical. There are too many years of cold hard reality awaiting every one of us. I vowed to keep them at bay for my child for as long as humanly possible.
When my daughter was two, my husband and I bought her a Little Tikes kitchen, and she loved to pretend that she was baking, just like mommy. We’d pop a tray full of plastic cookies into her pretend oven, and when she wasn’t looking, I always replaced them with vanilla wafers. I loved her wide-eyed look of astonishment when she opened the door and saw the “magic.” Surprise and delight … every time.
There were lots of opportunities for magic. On Christmas mornings, Santa left surprises under my husband’s tree. (I’m Jewish. I’m not allowed to have a tree. So I pretend it’s Jim’s.) Months later, the Easter Bunny arrived with a basket of jellybeans, chocolate eggs, markers, wind-up chicks and glamorous plastic jewels. And when my daughter was on the verge of losing her first tooth, I went to the bank and got shiny golden dollars to leave under her pillow with a sprinkle of gold glitter.
“Mommy,” she shrieked, as she bounced into my room the morning after her first tooth fell out. “The tooth fairy came, and look what she brought me! She must have bumped into my bed, because she left some fairy dust on accident.”
I loved that I could do this for my child … make her believe in the goodness in the world … in endless possibility.
She continued to lose teeth, and I continued to leave golden dollars and fairy dust.
But then we moved to New Jersey when she was seven, and those Jersey kids were just a little too savvy for their own good. They tainted my midwestern child with their jaded ways. Soon she was leaving a note, asking that the fairy please leave cash.
Then the next thing I know, she’s coming home from school and asking me if the tooth fairy is real. I dodged the question by saying, “What do you think?”
“I think she’s real,” she said, and I didn’t argue. She kept losing teeth, and I kept making magic.
But slowly her questions got much more pointed
“Are you the tooth fairy?” she asked me one day.
“What do you think?” I asked again, never confirming or denying anything.
And then one day she cornered me and smiled a knowing smile.
“Mom, I know you’re the tooth fairy,” she said, looking closely into my eyes to see if she could see the truth. “Admit it. I know it’s you. Are you the tooth fairy? I know it’s you. It’s you, right?”
I was so convinced I’d been busted that I caved and said, “Yes. You’re right. It’s me.” Then I stupidly showed her the secret compartment at the bottom of my jewelry box, where I kept all of her teeth, my golden coins and the fairy’s signature gold glitter.
She looked at me. And, in slow motion, her smile turned into a pout. Then her little rosebud lips started to twitch. And seconds later, she burst into tears and went running from my room, flung herself on her bed and cried for an inconsolable hour. I was so stunned at her reaction, I just sat beside her and said, “Oh honey, I’m so sorry.”
Between breaths she sobbed, “I (gulp of breath) wanted (gulp) to believe (gulp) there was (gulp) ma (gulp) magic.”
And there it was: my worst parenting moment ever. She had been egging me on, but what she really wanted was reassurance that the tooth fairy was real, not my admission of a hoax. She wanted to believe in magic. And I sat there guilty and helpless, stroking her hair and knowing that I would never own one of those cheesy plastic Hallmark statues that said “Mother of the Year.”
“There is magic in the world,” I tried to console her. “There are miracles around us every day. Look at a seed that can grow into a beautiful flower … or the stars that twinkle in the sky. Look at rainbows … or how a baby grows in a mommy’s tummy. It starts out so small you can’t even see it. Then it turns into a little grain of rice … then gets as big as a jellybean. And somehow it grows ears and eyes and arms and legs. That’s real magic.”
She wasn’t buying it. She just kept crying and crying, then suddenly looked at me, with panic in her eyes.
“What about Santa and the Easter Bunny?”
Good God, if the tooth fairy warranted this many tears, what would happen if I outed them all in one day?
So I did what any good-meaning but severely misguided mother would do.
“Oh no, they’re REAL,” I said. “Santa and the bunny are REAL.”
That Christmas, when we went into Manhattan to have her picture taken with Santa at Macy’s, I slipped one of the elves a note with her name and hobbies, so the big guy would know something about her and greet her personally.
“How are you liking New Jersey?” he asked. “And what’s this I hear you’re on the swim team?”
And she believed.
To this day, that magic lives at my house. There are no presents under our tree until Christmas morning. And come Easter, giant white footprints mysteriously appear around our neighborhood. They smell a lot like talcum powder, but I’m Jewish, so what do I know?
All I know is that the Easter Bunny still leaves a basket somewhere in the house and, next month, my high school senior will have to hunt for it, like a 5-year-old. My husband thinks this is ridiculous, but it’s tradition. Besides, there’s not a person on the planet who doesn’t (at least secretly) enjoy finding treasure … no matter how old they are.
Gone are the days of Betty and Veronica comics, coloring books and a brand new box of Crayolas. EB still brings jellybeans and chocolate eggs. He might bring a Starbucks or iTunes gift card, some movie tickets, a lipstick, a novel. And the rest of the basket is filled out with pricy sundries that mom and dad would have to purchase anyway. Last year, the bunny brought a Costo-sized box of razor cartridges … among other things.
“The Easter Bunny brought me deodorant?” my daughter asked with disbelief, flashing me a look that said, “Seriously mom?”
I just shrugged and said, “Wow. He’s very practical.”
My little girl recently turned 18. Does she know the truth by now?
The deodorant look she gave me speaks volumes, but she’s not talking.
And neither am I.
Because just in case she does still believe …
There’s no way in Candyland I’m going to be the one to break it to her!