The small white feathers that float around our yard belong to fairies. Nora will swear it's true. This summer, she'll tell you, she and her friends saw a real fairy flying through the air, touring the school playground. And when they ran after it, trying to catch up to its magic, all that they found was a single white feather. But to them, that was proof enough.
Pretty soon, I know, these feathers won't mean anything. They'll float by her, insignificant in the wind, a nuisance even. She won't believe in the existence of fairies or the endless possibilities of magic. She won't know to insist with such fervor that fairies are real and that they are right here in our own back yard.
Last year at this time it wasn't fairies. It was princesses. It was princess dresses and princess stories, princess dolls and princess crowns, princess jewels and princess castles. Princesses were her world.
During the year of the princess, I read countless articles belittling the princess culture, admonishing mothers who give in to their daughter's whims to be fancy, provoking me to worry about my daughter's future if I was to allow her to revel in the majesty of princess costumes above all else.
I read all of those articles. I read them and I dismissed them.
Every day she came home from school, donned her princess dress and crown, sometimes grabbed a wand for flair, and entered into an endless world of possibility. In her fifth year of discovering what it means to be Nora, what it means to be a girl, a friend, a sister, a daughter, she did all of her figuring in costume. She saved her first allowance for a long Rapunzel wig. She walked down the princess aisle at Target each time in awe of all the trinkets and baubles. She wanted bedtime stories of princesses and their great adventures. In costume, she created tale upon tale in which she was the star, the center of attention, the one with the dress and the princess attitude to match it.
This last year, Nora didn't care what others thought of her; she didn't dress as a princess because Disney or her friends or some TV commercial told her to. She tells me all the time that I am plain and she is fancy and that is just the way it is. She dressed like a princess because she wanted to. She dressed like a princess because she adored the feeling of being regal, of being the center of attention, of creating fanciful stories of girls doing pretty amazing things. She dressed like a princess because she was confident, confident in herself and in the magical possibilities of the world around her. A princess can fight a dragon or change a beast into a prince. A princess can dance gracefully and always knows how to help others. She dressed like a princess because she felt like one.
And then one day at the grocery store she realized that everyone was looking at her. She realized that maybe she didn't want all that attention.
"If I don't wear the princess dresses, will all the people stop talking to me?" she asked one night.
"Probably," I said, explaining that friendly grocery shoppers must all just assume that girls dressed like Cinderella and Snow White would love to talk, would be uninhibited by the questions and stares of perfect strangers.
After that, she rarely wore her costumes out in public, saving them instead for her own private games.
And then, over the last few months, the princess trunk has been almost forgotten.
If you had asked me last year if this would make me sad, I would have surely said no. I would have never believed that it would happen, that the princess phase would end. And I certainly never dreamed that I would be the one attached to princesses after my daughter had decided to move on.
I'm not sure why that is exactly, but I have my theories.
It hit me yesterday as we took our annual Christmas-list tour of Target. She pointed to the doll clothes and the animals, the puppies who can walk and the accessories for taking care of them. She looked briefly at a Rapunzel doll, not a Barbie-sized one but one she could play with like a baby doll (with really long hair). And when I asked her if she wanted to go down the princess aisle, she declined.
"I'm not really into all that Princess stuff anymore," she declared.
She's into dolls and animals, into being a nurturer of cute things, creating stories that she can play out with a cast of characters instead of just playing them all herself.
She's into jokes and laughter, being silly, playing with words. She laughs so hard at her own jokes sometimes it makes my whole body smile.
She's learning about feelings -- having hers hurt and her own power to hurt others. And she's learning to deal with the guilt that comes when you accidentally say something you don't really mean.
And lately she's also been an anxious girl, one who wants an escort to the bathroom to make sure there are no monsters, who cries when I'm going out without her, who asks me questions I don't even want to think about, like what would happen to her if I died.
I remember being a bit older than Nora, maybe 6 or 7, standing at the top of the stairs in my house in the middle of the night, staring down into the darkness and knowing that I heard noises of robbers or monsters or kidnappers. I was sure there was evil in that darkness. I remember waking up my parents, telling them my stomach hurt, wanting company more than comfort. I remember sitting in the bathroom with my very patient father, him telling me it was all ok and then making me go back to bed alone. I remember not wanting to go to friends' houses or away from my parents. What if something happened while I was gone?
And I also remember that phase ending, my returning to restful nights and being able to push the fears of life away.
Nora will get there too. I can already see her trying.
I will miss the princess aisle this Christmas because it will always represent my daughter's utter innocence. Her ability to believe only in the goodness of people and life itself. Her unquestionable love for herself and her capacity to be beautiful. It will forever represent, to me, the unshakable confidence of being 4.
I will miss the princess aisle this Christmas because, while it means she is growing up, that she's realizing that life isn't always a fairy tale, it also means that I have a growing responsibility to teach her all the lessons that a princess can avoid -- about fairness and feelings, strength and courage. These lessons are much harder to teach, and so much more important.
The princess aisle seems easy compared to what lies ahead.
So this year there will not be any princesses under the tree. There will be stuffed animals and tools to create art, new books to read and new clothes to dress her dolls in.
And there will be the many fairy feathers floating on the breeze, reminding both Nora and I that there is still magic out there. There will always be magic.