Once You Are Real
She stood there between the stacks … the nearly eleven year old girl, staring at the books as they patiently waited there on the shelf in proper ‘Dewey Decimal’ order for her to choose one of them. How many times she had stood here before, in this very spot, she couldn’t say. Too many times to count, that’s for sure. But ‘She’ had always been here before, right beside her, holding her hand, helping her choose just the right book. This was their special place, the place where magic happened, the place where the real world ended and the limitless world of imagination began, the New York City Public Library. It was almost a sacred place to her. Just walking through the doors filled her with a sense of wonder and awe that she had never felt anywhere else except maybe in a cathedral. This was the first time she had ever stood here … alone.
“What are you in the mood for today, Honey? Adventure? A ghost story? Magic? Maybe a little romance?”
“Jenny says I’m too old for fairy tales, Mom. Is that true?”
Mother had laughed at the very notion. Cathy loved the sound of her mother’s laugh.
“How can anyone ever be too old for fairy tales? It’s like saying you’re too old to dream. The world would be an awfully dark and dreary place if we didn’t have our dreams, now wouldn’t it?”
“I guess so,” the girl had replied.
“We’re never too old for a good fairytale, Cathy. Magic is for children of all ages.” her mother had assured her.
Tears suddenly sprang unbidden to her eyes. She looked around to see if anyone was looking at her and then she turned and ran as if she were being chased by a ghost. In a way … she was.
Cathy didn’t stop running until she reached the front steps of the library. Taking in great gulps of air, she sat down in the shadow of Fortitude, one of the two famous lion statues who stand guard in front of the library, and leaned against him for support. The smooth, cool marble felt good against her hot cheek. Jenny and Nancy weren’t far behind. Once they caught up with her, they both sat down next to her on the steps and quietly waited. It was comforting to have friends who understood.
After about ten minutes, Jenny cheerfully chimed, “Does anyone want a pretzel or a hot dog? I’m hungry.”
Cathy sighed deeply and wiped her damp cheeks. “I swear, Jenny, you’re always hungry.”
They all laughed and ran down the steps in search of the nearest street vendor.
“Did you find any good books at the library today?” Charles innocently inquired as they sat together at dinner.
Without looking up from her plate, Cathy simply said, “No”
Charles looked up in surprise. He could see from her demeanor that she wasn’t in the mood to talk. That was often the case these days.
“Well, I never thought I would see the day when Catherine Rose Chandler couldn’t find a book to read,” he ventured, getting no response.
Cathy continued to push her food around her plate with her fork.
“Cathy?” He asked, attempting to get her attention. “Cathy,” he said a little louder.
She looked up from her plate to see her father’s concerned face. “What?”
“Are you all right?” he asked, using a softer tone. “Did something happen today at the library?”
She could feel her cheeks getting hot. “No, what makes you ask that?” Her agitation was clear.
“If you need to talk, I’m here. You know that … don’t you, Cathy?”
“I don’t want to talk, Daddy. May I please be excused?” She needed to leave before she started to cry. Without waiting for him to answer she fled from the room.
Charles Chandler sighed. This was often how dinner ended these days. “I don’t know what to do,” he said even though he was sitting alone. “I’m not sure I can do this without you, Caroline.” He hung his head in resignation.
After his wife’s death in the late spring Charles had taken Cathy on a three month trip around the world. He had done it as much for himself as for his ten year old daughter. He felt they both needed to get away from the house, away from New York, away from the fresh, raw memories and take their minds off of their terrible loss. Now he wasn’t so sure he had done the right thing. He had only postponed the grieving, and now his daughter was trying to adjust to a new school year, a new teacher, and new classmates at the same time she was coming face to face with the terrible grief they had both postponed all summer.
After crying on her bed for about twenty minutes, Cathy heard a soft knock on her door. She quickly grabbed a handful of Kleenex tissues and sat up on her bed.
As the door slowly opened she could only see his huge red clown nose and a hand holding a plate containing a large piece of chocolate cake.
“You can come in, Daddy.” Cathy spoke softly through her tears. She blew her nose as he came in and sat on the edge of her bed.
Holding out the cake for her, he observed, “It looks like I’m not the only one with a red nose, huh?”
She looked up at him and managed a weak one sided grin. She reached for the cake. “Thanks,” she said, sniffling and taking a tentative bite of cake.
“I love you, Cathy. I hope you know that.” He spoke from his heart.
“I know,” was her clipped reply. An awkward silence followed.
“But you’re angry with me.”
She stopped eating and placed the cake on her night stand. At length she lifted her head to look into his eyes. Fresh tears threatened to spill again. She grabbed another tissue, “pttttthhhhht,” and blew her nose again.
Charles was a patient man. Winning her mother’s love had taught him how important that was. He would wait for Cathy as long as she needed him to.
Finally she spoke. “Why did we have to come back here, Daddy?”
Surprised by the question he replied. “Is that why you’re angry, because we came home?”
She nodded, afraid that if she spoke the tears would begin to flow again.
He reached up and slowly removed the red, bulbous, clown nose. “My job is here, Cathy. I had to get back to work. You needed to be back here for school. We had to come back. Besides, all your friends are here. I thought you missed them.”
She looked at the ceiling as a couple of tears escaped and rolled down her cheeks. “I did miss them, Dad. I know my friends are here, but so is…” She stopped for a moment. He could see her chin quiver.
He sighed and nodded, suddenly realizing what the problem was. “But so is she? ... Mom? … And yet she’s not?”
Cathy only nodded.
“Yes …” he continued. “It is hard to be here… where she used to be."
Charles was thoughtful. Then looking back at his daughter, he said, “When your mother was twelve years old … her mother passed away.”
Cathy was surprised. “She never told me that.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “She didn’t like to talk about it. She preferred to dwell on happy things.”
“Her father didn’t feel he could raise her so he sent her away to a boarding school in Boston.”
Charles saw a look of fear come into Cathy’s eyes.
“It was a very unhappy time in your mother’s life. She made me promise … that no matter what … we would stay together. She wanted us to be here … for each other. She very much wanted you to have a happy life, Cathy.”
Cathy continued looking fearfully into her father’s clear blue eyes.
“But you aren’t happy … are you, Sweetheart?”
The tears began running more freely as she shook her head.
He looked down at the floor. “I don’t know what to do, Cathy. It breaks my heart to see you so unhappy, but I don’t want to break my promise to your mother either.”
He looked back and they stared at each other in silence. Charles was so afraid to ask her, but he knew he must. He was even more afraid of what her answer might be. Finally he spoke. “Do you want me to send you away, Cathy? Would you be happier somewhere else?”
It felt as if the world had stopped. Neither of them even breathed momentarily. It was as if they were frozen, suspended in time until she whispered in disbelief. “Do you want me to go, Daddy? Do you want to send me away?”
Charles could feel himself begin to tremble. I can’t lose her too, he thought. His eyes shimmered with unshed tears as he shook his head emphatically. “NO … NO … Cathy … I don’t want that. I don’t know what I would ever do without you … but I want you to be happy. If you think you would be happy somewhere else … I … I …” He stopped talking. He didn’t have the power to say anything more.
Cathy flung herself into his arms and begged. “Please don’t send me away, Daddy. I need you. I love you, Daddy. PLEASE DON’T SEND ME AWAY!”
He comforted his sobbing daughter, at the same time whispering his thanks to Heaven that she didn’t want to go. “Shh … shhhh … Cathy. It’s all right, Honey. I won’t send you away. I promise.” He stroked her head and spoke softly to her until she calmed down. Pulling away, she reached for a tissue and blew her nose again. She reached for another tissue and handed it to her father.
He accepted it gratefully. “Pttthhhhhhhhpppt!!!” He blew his nose loudly and then chuckled. “We make a find pair of weeping bookends, you and I, don’t we?”
Cathy smiled a little and nodded. “I guess we better stick together, huh, since we’re a matched set and all?”
He smiled at that. “I feel her here too, you know.”
She looked up at him again.
“Your mother and I … we’ve been all over this city, the museums, the theaters … There are so many memories. I can’t even go into Grand Central Station without thinking I see her there in the crowd. And here at home … Whenever I come home from work, I keep thinking she’s going to come running down the stairs to tell me all about her day. Even here … in your room … sometimes I could swear I smell her perfume and I look around … but she’s not here …” His voice trailed off.
Cathy gave him a sideways glance and then picked up the thread. “When we were on our trip, I used to pretend that you and I … we were just travelling together … and that Mom was here, waiting for us to come home. I would go to sleep thinking about all the things I would tell her when we got back … Everywhere I go … I hear her voice, Daddy … I remember things we used to do together and funny things she used to say… but they don’t make me laugh … they make me … (sniffle) … I don’t want to go places … places I used to love … Central Park … and the carousel … sometimes I think she’s … pthppppppt.” She blew her nose and took a deep breath.
“Is that what happened at the library today?” he asked, silently noting that he had better stock up on Kleenex.
She nodded. “That was our special place … ever since I can remember ... she made it a magical place …”
He nodded his head. “Yes, she did that all right.” Charles had his own memories of Caroline in the library.
“I started to cry … right there in the stacks, Daddy! … I ran out to the street as fast as I could … before anyone could see me … Nancy and Jenny came after me and found me on the steps.”
“What did they do? Did they make fun of you? If they did, I can speak to their …”
“No, Daddy,” she said, shaking her head. “They didn’t make fun of me … They just sat there with me … until I stopped crying.”
“And then what happened?”
“Jenny was hungry, so we went and got hot dogs.”
Charles smiled a little at that. Jenny Aronson had to be the hungriest little girl he had ever met. “You’re blessed to have such good friends, Cathy. Well, at least now I know you are living on more than just chocolate cake.”
“Very funny.” Cathy leaned over and opened the drawer in her night stand where she kept her treasures. She removed an antique perfume atomizer and handed it to her father.
“Mom’s perfume,” she admitted sheepishly.
“Why was it in there?” he asked.
“Mom always used to read to me … at night … before she … you know … got so sick. After you and Mom would kiss me goodnight and turn out the light … I could still smell her perfume. As long as I could smell it, I felt like she was here in the dark watching over me.”
She went quiet for a moment before continuing her confession. “Since we came home I … I spray that in the air before I go to sleep at night and … when I close my eyes I feel like … like …”
“… like she’s still here?” he suggested.
Nodding, she said, “Yeah … soooo … if you smelled her perfume in here … that’s probably why ... I just thought you should know that … you know … so you don’t think you’re going crazy or something.”
Charles smiled again. “Does it help? Does it make it hurt less?”
“I guess so. It helps me go to sleep. If you want to try it … you can have it back.”
He put an arm around her shoulder, pulled her close and kissed her on top of the head. She has her mother’s heart, he thought. Handing it back, he said, “No, Honey, I think she would want you to have it.”
As she placed it back in the drawer, he made a suggestion. “I know I don’t smell as good as your mother, but I can read too, you know.”
“Huh?” she replied.
“I could read to you… that is … if you don’t think you are too old or anything. If you want me to, I could read to you at night … before you go to bed. But only if you wanted me to.”
A slow smile spread across her face. “You would do that for me, Daddy?”
“If you gave me a smile like that, Honey, I would do just about anything you wanted.” He had no idea that one day he might come to regret that promise.
“I think I would like that a lot. Will you read to me now?”
“Sure, I will,” he said. He didn’t care that he had a briefcase full of work that he had brought home from the office, nothing was more important to him than his little girl. He got up and went over to her bookshelf where he knew she kept all of her favorite books. “What’s your pleasure?”
Cathy didn’t want to tell him that those were the books her mother used to read. She wasn’t ready to hear them from anybody else, not even him … not yet anyway.
“No, Daddy, not those. Why don’t you choose? Read me one of your favorites.”
Charles left the room for a moment and returned a few minutes later carrying a well-loved volume. He sat down in the large overstuffed reading chair next to her bed. “My brother and I both loved this book when we were kids.”
“Uncle Matthew, the one who died in the war?”
“Mmmm hmmm,” he replied.
“Do you still miss him, Daddy?”
“Yes.” He nodded. “Yes, I do, but I’m sure glad I had him while I did. Whenever I read this story I can feel him with me.”
“Doesn’t it make you sad? You know, when you read it and it makes you think about him?”
Charles shook his head. “No. In the beginning, it was hard. I missed him so much. I was so sorry he was gone and that we really hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye. After a while though, reading it made me feel like he wasn’t really gone at all … not completely anyway.” He cleared his throat. “Are you ready?”
“‘The Velveteen Rabbit or How Toys Become Real’[i],” His voice became hoarse for a moment and the words on the page began to blur. He suddenly sat up straight, cleared his throat again, and began to read.
There was once a velveteen rabbit, and in the beginning he was really splendid. He was fat and bunchy, as a rabbit should be: his coat was spotted brown and white, he had real thread whiskers and his ears were lined with pink sateen….
As she listened, Cathy finished eating her cake and lay down on her side. She pulled the afghan from the end of her bed and snuggled down under it to watch him as he read. His soothing voice began to weave a warm comforting cocoon of magic around them both.
Her eyes began to droop as he read, but she was determined to stay awake until he finished the book.
… “‘What is REAL?’ asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side…”
Charles paused and looked at his daughter. His heart swelled with love for the only part of Caroline he had left in all the world. She looked so beautiful and peaceful sleeping there… How am I going to do this, Caroline? he wondered. I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing. I don’t know how to do it.
“Why’d you stop, Daddy?” Cathy’s eyes were wide with worry. “Are you okay?”
Charles looked up with a start. “I thought you had drifted off to sleep. I’m too old to read this to myself.”
Sitting up and leaning against the headboard, she declared, “You’re never too old for a good fairytale, Dad.”
He cocked his head to one side. “You sounded so much like your mother, just then.”
Cathy smiled. “’Magic is for children of all ages.’ That’s what mom always said.”
His eyes glistened as she spoke. He nodded in agreement. “Yes, that’s right … she did,” he whispered.
“So are you going to finish it or what?” she insisted.
He cleared his throat and turned back to the book. “Where was I? … Oh yes… ‘Does it mean having…’”
“Can you back up a little, Dad? Start with ‘What is REAL …,’ It’s the best part. I don’t want to miss any of it.
He chuckled a little and gave her a wink.
“’What is REAL?’ asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. ‘Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick out handle?”
‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.’
Charles looked up at the sound of Cathy laughing. It was a sound he hadn’t heard for a very long time. She laughs just like you, Caroline, he thought. Like wind chimes in the morning breeze. It was like a balm to his broken heart.
“And just what is so funny, young lady?” he asked.
Still smiling she said, “I was just trying to imagine you, Daddy … you know … with most of your hair loved off.”
He chuckled. “Will you still love me, Cathy, when my eyes drop out and I’m old and ugly?”
She jumped off of the bed and into his arms. With her arms wrapped tightly around his neck she declared, “I’ll love you for always, Daddy. I promise. You could never be ugly to me.” She kissed him on the cheek and squirmed into the small space next to him in the overstuffed chair and they continued to read….
‘I suppose you are real?’ said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.
‘The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,’ he said. ‘That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.’
Charles put the book down and gave her his attention. “Yes, Cathy?”
“I was just wondering … you know … about … Mom … She’s still real … isn’t she?”
“What do you mean?”
She was struggling to find the right words. “I mean … I know she’s … gone … but … she’s still real … right? She’s still somewhere … so … she’s not really gone … right?”
Charles thought he understood what she was asking. He squeezed her a little bit closer. With tears in his eyes he tried to answer her. “That’s right, Sweetheart. Just like the Skin Horse said, ‘Once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.’ We certainly loved your mother, didn’t we?”
“Yes,” she said, nodding.
“We loved her so much, I don’t think she could ever leave us completely, not even if she wanted to. As long as we remember how much we loved her, and how much she loved us, she will never be more than a heartbeat away.”
“Do you think there’s really a Heaven, Dad? Do you think we’ll ever see her again?”
He looked into her searching green eyes knowing that she needed and answer … an answer he himself was unsure of. He gave her the only answer he could think of.
“Your Mom believed there was, and she was pretty smart. I sure hope so, Honey.” He became very quiet. “I sure hope so,” he sighed. He turned back to the book and tried to resume reading, but he was too choked up to even see the words. One lone tear drop plopped onto the page and then another …
Cathy gently lifted the book from his hands and began reading.
The Rabbit sighed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.
There was a person called Nana who ruled the nursery …
As he listened to his daughter read, Charles Chandler felt, for the first time in months, a calm assurance that she was going to be all right … that somehow … they were both going to be all right.
[i] The Velveteen Rabbit, Book by Margery Williams and S. D. Schindler Originally published: 1922
May you never grow too old to believe in magic.
Illustrations supplied by the author