My daughter’s imaginary friend is named “N.O.K.” Since she was very small, she’s been talking about her, as in: “N.O.K. loves cherry ice cream,” “N.O.K. is the only one who will play games that aren’t ‘princess-y,’” “N.O.K’s mom is in Israel this week so she’s staying with us.”
When my daughter had to make a list of her best friends for school, N.O.K. was at the top of the list.
N.O.K has a big heart, a quick wit, and a terrific sense of humor. But until last year, she had no face. And then, one day, it happened.
We walked into Jules, our local pizza place, and my daughter stopped dead in her tracks. On the wall was an enormous photo of a little girl with huge brown eyes, long cinnamon colored waves, and just a smattering of freckles.
“It’s N.O.K., Mama! Look! There she is!”
She ran up to the photo and stood mesmerized for several seconds. Then she reached up and gently stroked N.O.K.’s hair.
From that day forth, Jules has been my daughter’s favorite place to go. If the seat under N.O.K’s photo isn’t open, she waits patiently until it is. In between bites of pizza, she shares secret smiles with N.O.K. She blows her a million kisses on the way out the door.
A new Jules opened up in a neighboring town with a beautiful new photo of N.O.K. She’s older now. But she’s still got the same dreamy smile, the same thoughtful eyes. There’s also a sign under the picture that I was sure my daughter would be interested in hearing me read out loud.
“Oh, look at this!” I bubbled. “This little girl is Jules, the owner’s daughter.”
The smile on my daughter’s face faded. Her lips trembled. She blinked hard to keep the tiny tears from falling down her cheeks.
“But… but… I thought that was N.O.K.,” she whispered.
I’d done it. With one ridiculous truth I’d ruined the most beautiful lie in the world.
I did my best to backtrack. Maybe the sign was wrong. Maybe I hadn’t read it correctly. Maybe… despite their obvious similarities, this little girl wasn’t the same as the one in our town, her own dear N.O.K.
I could see the wheels in my daughter’s head spinning as she listened to me. She wanted to believe me. Oh, how she wanted to! But, she just couldn’t do it.
So I pulled out all the stops.
“I have to tell you the truth. I lied. The sign didn’t say this girl is Jules. I just thought it made for an interesting story.”
My daughter’s face lit up. This she understood. She speaks in stories, lives in stories. It can often take 20 minutes of questions to get past the story to the real truth of her day.
“So, it is N.O.K.?”
“Yes, of course!”
Instantly, the spring was back in her step. She twirled over to the photo and planted an enormous kiss on N.O.K.’s cheek.
I wish I could say it was the first time that I lied to my kid. But, it wasn’t. Not even close.
I started out with good intentions, I really did. When she was small and insisted on believing in Santa Claus, even though I told her that Jewish kids don’t believe in Santa, even though I insisted that he was pretend, I held my ground.
Until the day when her eyes grew round and wet and she sobbed into my arms.
“He is real, Mama! I saw him at the mall and he winked at me!”
I gave in. Just as I did the time when she was certain that fairies had left the little playhouse in our garden and the time she informed me that I was never going to die.
Maybe I gave in because there are far more bad surprises in this world than good ones. Maybe I gave in because my mother was so adamant about us knowing the truth of things that I often missed out on the magic. Maybe I gave in because my daughter just isn’t ready to accept these big truths.
Or maybe I gave in because I can’t bear to see that glowing light in her eyes melt into shimmering puddles on her cheeks.
I don’t know if it’s good parenting or bad parenting to allow her to believe things that just aren’t true. I suspect it’s a little of both. What I do know is that it can’t last forever. Well before either of us is ready, these tiny lies that she holds on to so dearly will fade away, leaving nothing but the naked truth.
When that happens I hope she can forgive me for all the times I let her believe in fairies, all the times I allowed her to bend the truth, all the magic I just couldn’t bear to take from those twinkling brown eyes.