My stepdaughter Mary was about six years old when she came to me holding a tiny object. She had been playing in the front yard and found what appeared to be a cut gemstone.
She opened her fist slowly to reveal it.
“Is it real?” she asked in a quavering voice.
It looked to me like a badly made glass stone from a costume jewellery ring. I held it as solemnly as I could up to the light. I was stalling, because I didn’t know how to answer her. If I had said, “No, dear, it’s just glass,” I would have been telling the truth, something I place a fairly high value on. But then that look of childish wonder, poised on the razor’s edge between reality and fantasy, would disappear from her face. If I had told her the stone was real, on the other hand, I would have been setting her up for a fall later. That felt too much like betrayal. I couldn’t even say I didn’t know, because I did.
I don’t remember what I said. It was probably one of those trick answers grownups use when they’re stumped. Something like, “It’s very pretty dear. Now go and help Mommy with the flowerbed. That’s a good girl.”
Not long ago, I realised what I should have said. Too bad we don’t get a second chance, and by the time we are wiser the grownup children are making their own mistakes. Because it matters what we say to one another. It matters a lot.
I could have said, “Look, I’ll tell you what. Bring me a little box, a matchbox, or something. You can colour it with your crayons and stick little stars on it. Then we’ll find some cotton and put the stone carefully inside. Then you take it and hide it somewhere safe, where only you know where it is. Next year at this time, we’ll open it, and then you’ll know whether it’s real or not.”
That’s what I wish I’d said to Mary. Maybe that’s what I would like to say to myself. The thing to do when something comes along that might be important is not to get carried away, but not to explain it away, either. Put it somewhere safe, until the world has revolved enough times that I might be ready to understand what it is I’ve found.
Because the truth doesn’t change. We do.
A version of this story appeared in my book, Seeing with Your Ears.