Last summer when my father in law came from Ireland to visit, we took my daughters hiking in the Kaaterskill Wild Forest in upstate New York. My older daughter was five at the time, and her curls were as untamed as the forest. She sprang from boulder to boulder like the spriteliest of wood nymphs, collecting memories into her fingertips: on one hand, the spongy fuzz of damp moss, on the other, the warm, soft grip of her grandfather’s hand. She was sweaty and pink-cheeked and happy.

“Hey,” I told her, “make sure to watch out for fairies. This is fairy land if I’ve ever seen it.”

She bounced on her toes and squealed, “Yes, Mommy! They always live in the tangly woods, right?”

“That’s right.”

Her grandfather raised an eyebrow at me and shook his head. Then to my daughter, he said, “Never mind fairies. You should be watching out for bears.”

She stopped in her tracks and turned to face him. “Granddad,” she said critically, “Bears aren’t real.”

Granddad and I both laughed, but my little girl returned her solemn attention to tracking fairies.

I’ve thought about that exchange so many times since-the comic innocence of my child’s certainty, and how fragile our small ideas of what’s real in this world.

My daughter is six now, and she’s in first grade. She is exploring a terrain that is far more treacherous than the knobbly roots and slippery rocks of the Wild Forest; she is learning to navigate the new social landscape of authentic friendship. Gone are the days when her uncomplicated attachments were founded on things like funny faces and a mutual love of cheese.

In the kitchen, my daughter sits at the island with two friends, slurping milk from cups that will leave white puddles on our counter. After snacks, they flee from the room like a thundering tornado of arms, legs, and ponytails. I hear them shrieking and thudding around upstairs. They still retain the lucky caul of innocence; they still laugh with their eyes closed and their hearts open. But not for long.

These six-year-olds are sophisticated. They are ambitious and bright and open. Like glimmering nuggets of ore hacked from the earth, they are unaware of their own potency; they will discover it soon enough. These children have a tremendous capacity for wonder, combined with some natural measure of cruelty. Theirs are the first delicate, prickly, funny, sweet, tender, sharp-edged friendships of life. These kids are practicing how to be in the world, who to be in the world.

It begins. A month after that idyllic play date comes a forgotten birthday invitation, a surge of jealousy on the school bus, a malevolent remark in the cafeteria about someone’s skin, hair, family. One little boy doesn’t have the words to fight back, so he uses his teeth and his fists instead. My child gathers it all in with her eyes and ears, and then chants it back to me, her voice thick with anxiety. I have to invent words to soothe my daughter’s distress. I have to explain why she wasn’t invited to her friend’s party, when I don’t understand it myself.

Already these children have discovered how to puncture each other with the ugliness of dragons. They know that, if they use their claws, there is a hot squish of mortal humanity beneath the skin. It will get worse as they grow older, as they refine their skills and their bruises.

My daughters will both hurt. They will hurt. They must. Alongside joy and triumph, they will experience, and sometimes inflict, tremendous heartache. I would like to plant a thicket of brambles around their hearts to prevent this eventuality, but I know I cannot. After all, they are going to be teenagers one day. Even a warrior mama cannot guard against life. So what can I do? How do I protect and encourage them?

©Gordon Adler
©Gordon Adler

I must arm them with every Good Thing I can find, and I must do it now, while they are young and receptive. I must choose my weapons carefully. My daughters’ armories will include beauty and poetry and stories and music and love. I will heap these armors upon them whenever I can, so that joy might sustain them through the inevitable heartaches to come. Last year I took my first grader to the MoMA, and I stared at her, while she stared, open-mouthed, at Van Gogh’s Starry Night. In November, my younger daughter and I spent a day at The Cloisters, where we sat holding hands on the cool stone floor of the Fuentidueña Chapel, completely wrapped in music. Even my three-year old was moved to silence by the soaring beauty of Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet. (No one was more surprised than I was!) Each evening, we burrow beneath my comforter, close enough so I can smell the toothpaste on their breath, while I read their favorite stories and poems to them.

But beauty is not enough. Their arsenals should also contain magic in all its forms: God, faith, forgiveness, empathy. My children will inherit these words. But I want them to know that there are many different vocabularies for the magic of believing. So my husband and I began by choosing Irish names for them, to echo the ancient mythologies of their heritage, names uttered by fairies once.

In my daughters’ bedroom, propped against the bottom rail of their pale pink dresser, sits a fairy door that I bought when my oldest was newborn. It was rather plain at first, but I painted it with purple glitter and strung pearls and gems across it. I fastened a burst of flower buds to its doorstep because I wanted it to look inviting. My daughters have seen it every day of their lives and don’t often notice it any more. But they know it’s there. They know that, if they leave it unlocked, the fairies might trek through it during the night. (Most fairies are nocturnal, they understand.) The visiting fairies might hide little treasures for my girls, or play funny tricks on them, or perch within the curves of their sleeping ears and murmur dreams into their waiting hearts. So yes, my daughters will command legions of fairies! Because I want them to know that all things are possible in life. I want them to be open to limitless grace, and to know that they cannot predict or define what that grace might look like.

At six, my daughter knows grace. She is intimately familiar with it; she embodies it. She can stand at the foot of Kaaterskill Falls and hear God’s voice scattered and amplified through the whispers of unseen fairies she knows are there. When she is sixteen, and twenty-six, and beyond, I want her to hear it still. When she has her first broken heart, when she is frightened, when she first meets trauma with all of its wicked hooks and weapons, I want her armed. To the teeth.

Article from the Spring 2014 Issue #26
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Jeanine Cummins
Jeanine Cummins is the bestselling author of the memoir A Rip in Heaven and novels The Outside Boy and The Crooked Branch. Learn more at