August 2020

The Unicorn Question

From the archive...

We were just arriving home from the park, when my daughter sprung the question. She was on her bike. I was on foot. It was a beautiful day, though overcast, and the park had been muddy, and she was a little tired from the bike ride home. She'd been quiet the last half-block. I blamed it on muscle fatigue. It turns out she was mulling the nature of reality.

"Can we go to the jungle and see unicorns?" she asked. She said it casually, as if she were asking to go to the zoo and see elephants. 

My daughter is approaching 4, and we expect these big questions every now and again. We'd watched "The Adventures of Robin Hood" with Errol Flynn and had an exhaustive discussion as to why Prince John could be a bad guy when he seemed so nice. ("But he's a prince," she kept saying, "and happy.")


But I was not prepared for The Unicorn Question.


I decided to attempt a sidestep.


"Unicorns don't live in the jungle," I said.


My daughter pushed her bike up the grass hill to our yard. "Where do they live?" she asked.


This stumped me. "Um, meadows?" I said.


She turned back and squinted at me, clearly dubious. "Meadows?"


"The old English countryside?" I guessed.


She wasn't buying it. "Where do unicorns really live?" she asked.


I had to come clean. "In a magic land," I said.


She frowned. "Can we go there?"


I forced a big excited, fake smile. "That's the great thing about magic lands, you can go any time you want, because they exist in your imagination," I said.


She stood in the yard, her pink bike helmet strapped under her chin, and looked at me the way she sometimes looks at her father. "Are unicorns real?" she asked.


There it was.


What was I supposed to do? Lie? It was a direct question. "They're imaginary," I said, immediately feeling like a jerk.


"Like dinosaurs?" she asked.


"Dinosaurs used to be real," I said. "They lived a long, long time ago. Unicorns are made up."


Her mouth tightened for a moment, and then she turned back toward the house and started to walk her bike toward the porch. "OK," she said.


I felt like a monster. I had destroyed her belief in unicorns. I was a unicorn murderer. I imagined piles of unicorn carcasses, their horns snapped off, their white coats matted with blood.


We went inside and sat down with my husband.


"I don't see the moon," my daughter said to him. (It was mid-afternoon, and the sky was entirely blanketed with clouds.)


"It's on the other side of the world," my husband said.


"No it's not," she said. She peered out the French doors to the backyard. "It's out there." In her defense, we had seen the moon in the daytime sky a few weeks earlier.


"It's too cloudy," I said.


"It's on the other side of the world," my husband said again. Sometimes he thinks we ignore him.


She craned her neck so she could see more sky. "I can't find it," my daughter said.


"Trust me," my husband said.


My daughter crossed her arms. "I want to see the moon," she said.


My husband reached for her toy phone, which was sitting on the coffee table.


"Hello?" he said into it. "Is this the moon?" He paused. "Where are you now?" He listened and nodded and then looked over at our daughter. "Oh, the other side of the world?" He paused. "Would you mind telling my daughter that?" He held the phone out to her. "The moon wants to talk to you," he said.


She took the phone and held it to her ear. "Hello, Moon," she said. She listened for a moment. "OK," she said. "I understand. Goodbye." She lowered the phone and turned back to my husband. "The moon says that it is half up today," she said. "And that you are wrong."


Her imagination was intact, unicorn massacre notwithstanding.

Good Luck

My daughter is 3 1/2 and an only child, so I spend a lot of time trying to keep her busy. This requires coming up with a lot of activities, and my suggestions are fast and furious. 

Why don't you draw a tree! Do a puzzle! Build a fort! Every idea has an exclamation mark.

If I Gatling gun enough ideas, one will hit, and my daughter will go off happily with an activity.


Sometimes she just wants to crawl on me.

We were in the front yard this past week, after a long walk. I had walked. She had been in the stroller. We/I had walked a very long way to a bike store, which had been closed, and then back home, up a slight incline that I had barely noticed on the way to the bike store, but became K2 on the way back up pushing a 35-pound kid.

So we were in the front yard. Because I was too tired to haul the stroller up the front-porch steps. "Let's rest," I suggested, collapsing on the bottom step.

But my daughter had not walked, and didn't need to rest. She wanted to throw her body as hard as she could against mine.

"Why don't you run around with the dog?" I suggested.

"I don't want to," she said.

"Why don't you run up and down the hill?" I said. Our yard slopes down to the sidewalk. This would wear her out for sure.

"I don't want to," she said.

I glanced out at the yard, blotchy brown in parts, green in others. Most of the actual grass had dried to a crunchy straw, but the clover in the yard seemed to be thriving.

Which gave me an idea. "Why don't you look for a four-leaf clover?" I said. This would keep her busy for hours. I spent my childhood looking for a four-leaf clover, searching every yard, every sidewalk crack, every park, carefully picking through 10 billion three-leaf ones. And it was only in this moment, with my daughter, that I realized that my mother had come up with that activity because I was 3 1/2, and an only child, and she wanted to keep me busy.

I never did find a four-leaf clover, but some of my favorite memories are of lying in the grass, trying.

"What's a four-leaf clover?" my daughter asked.

I showed her a three-leaf clover. "Look for one with four leaves. They're very special, and if you find one, it's good luck."

"OK," she said. She surveyed the yard, and pointed to a nearby clump of green. "I think I'll go search that clover family over there," she said.

I leaned back on the steps and looked up at the sky, enjoying the sun on my face and the peace and quiet of an occupied small child.

My daughter tapped me on the shoulder.

"I found one," she said.

It had been a few minutes. I smiled to myself. I remembered that. Thinking I'd found one, only to have an adult point out that one of the leaves was just folded over. "You want one with four leaves," I reminded her gently, "not three."

"It does have four leaves," she said.

She held the clover out to me. I examined it. It had four leaves. I had spent a million hours looking for a four-leaf clover as a kid and my daughter had found one in three minutes.

I counted them again.

One. Two. Three. Four.

"You have got to be kidding me," I said.

"Do you want me to find another one?" my daughter asked.

I looked from her back to the clover and to her again. "Do you know what this means?" I asked her. "How rare this is? This is incredible."

She placed her hand sweetly on my arm. "Mom," she said. "You can have it."

And she ran downhill to the sidewalk and back up again.