The first time I saw her she was seven years old. Warm and radiant with youth as children are, awkward puberty and teenage years a long way off. I was walking in front of her house, when out of the blue, she came charging around from behind the house imploring that I should help her rescue her unicorn which had gotten itself caught up a tree. Since I was early, and didn’t need to be at my appointment for a few hours, I decided it might be fun to engage in some childhood play for a while. After all, I’d never seen a unicorn.
She grabbed my hand and dragged me to the back yard.
“There he is mister! Can you get him down?” she asked.
I looked up and started to chuckle in spite of myself. There, tucked safely in the crook of a tree, was a large tabby cat with a horn tied around its head. The cat clearly wanted to stay where it was, as it did not enjoy the game that his mistress was currently playing.
“Can you see him? He’s magic!”
I found my way out.
“Nope, I can’t see him my dear,” I fibbed, an attempt to save the cat further embarrassment. “Where did you say he was?”
“There, right there!” She pointed emphatically.
I smiled and stifled another chuckle at her exuberance.
I bent down to her level “I’m sorry, sweetie. I just don’t see your magic unicorn –“
“You there! Charlotte get away from him!” The mother came blustering like a momma bear out of the back door.
I took several steps back and waited until the mother addressed me. I’d had a mother, too, and when mothers were in that sort of mood, the best thing to do is to wait until they ask you to speak.
“What do you think you’re doing back here?” she shouted
Very calmly, I replied “The child simply asked me to rescue her unicorn from the tree, and I was here to render assistance.”
“Unicorn?” He faced contorted “What unicorn?”
I pointed up into the tree
She looked up and her face melted into a smile. She chuckled a bit and turned back to Charlotte.
“You know you’re not supposed to talk to strangers! Now why are you tormenting that poor cat! You know he doesn’t like the games you play. How did you get that horn on his head anyway?”
I tipped my hat and started to walk away.
“Wait, I’m sorry,” she called after me. “My name is Virginia Clement. This is my daughter Charlotte.”
Now it was Charlotte’s turn to have a face contorted in anger. She wanted that cat!
“I’m sorry she disturbed you – she just has an overactive imagination! Hyperactive, even.”
“No, no apologies are necessary. I was happy to play along!”
“Well, anyways, I’m sorry.”
“That’s very kind, but I do need to be on my way.”
Ms. Clement followed me around to the front yard. Suddenly, she blurted out
“Mr. Clement, my husband works a lot. I’m alone her with Charlotte most days.”
I nodded and reached the sidewalk. I turned to go and she blurted again.
“Would you like to come in for some coffee or peach pie? I just made it.” She worried her hands on her apron. “Only, I don’t get very much company and it would be nice to talk to an adult for a while.”
I felt sorry for her, so lonely with such a precocious child.
“Maybe some other time, I really must be going.”
“All right,” she said, dejected. But quickly gathered herself again, “Please feel free to come by anytime. I have all sorts of baked goods, and I make a great cup of coffee!”
I nodded and continued on down the sidewalk, not giving the incident another thought. 20 years later, as I looked at Charlotte snuggled in the pillows across the great big bed, it still amazes me how that first meeting set up the chain of events that lead us to the moment here and now.