He sat across the narrow room from them as they ate their breakfast that morning. An attractive woman with two children: a boy of around eight years and his younger sister, a wide-eyed and happy five- or six-year-old. The mother was busy with her children but seemingly without the usual undertone of anxiety that he saw in so many young families these days. The children also did not display the more common agitated behavior of youngsters who felt they had to compete for attention. They showed all the enthusiasm and fearless engagement with life that he loved so much about children their ages. He felt especially enchanted by the girl, but he thought a person would have to be frozen solid not to feel the warmth of her smile and sparkling eyes. In fact, both children smiled easily, as did their mother. He imagined the challenges of parenthood had been met head on by her and the father and they had found the right mix for their family. It was a beautiful example of rightness the three presented that morning and he was thankful for being there to see it.
His own son had a daughter, now in her young teens. He had not seen her for some time because they lived out of state, but he remembered back to when she had been the same age as the child he watched now. There was such a wonderful energy with children, such magic.
He believed in magic. In fact, that was a chief part of the story he was reading that morning. The book before him was advertised as part of a children’s series about witches, wizards, dragons, and all kinds of magical things, but he loved the whole group of books and had picked up the latest one only a few days before. It was his daily custom to sit at the McDonalds for an hour each morning and read before taking on the day’s duties. Because reading was always such a pleasure for him, he thought of his morning routine as eating dessert first for his mind. But he’d already taken his usual hour and the day, like he, wasn’t getting any younger. He gathered the detritus of his breakfast, the strawberry jam cup and used napkins as well as the Styrofoam platter that had held his food, and took it all to the waste drop at one end of the room. Then he came back to the table and picked up his book to go out to his car.
Passing by the young family’s table, the little girl pointed to his book and asked, “Is that a dragon?” He looked at the cover of the book, which portrayed a beautifully drawn dragon on its cover and then smiled back at the girl. “Why, yes. Yes it is a dragon.” The child spoke as clearly as any adult and was obviously accustomed to speaking with them on a somewhat equal basis.
“Dragons aren’t real, you know.” She spoke with the conviction of a scholar on such matters and her innocent face showed she only wanted to make sure the man wasn’t laboring under any delusions. Out of the corner of his eye he noted that her older brother was nodding in agreement and there was a slight smile of delight from the mother at her child’s precociousness. He decided that the day’s routine could withstand a bit of delay.
He slowly changed his face and pretended to be shocked. “Why, that’s preposterous, my young lady. Whoever told you such a thing?” She silently pointed to her brother who had his mouth full with a breakfast sandwich at the moment, unable to do anything except nod in confirmation to the man. “Well,” he said with a dismissive gesture, “obviously, your brother has been misinformed as well. I’m sure he wouldn’t tell you such a thing if he didn’t believe it to be true.” He returned his gaze to the girl and held up the book’s cover so it could be seen clearly by her. “So, if dragons aren’t real, just how do you think this book’s cover got a picture of a dragon on it?”
“That’s not a picture,” she said condescendingly, “that’s a drawing.” The mother’s grin grew by another degree or two. He gave her a quick wink and smiled back at the little girl.
He tried to imitate her when he spoke again. “I know that. But it’s a picture nevertheless. Drawings are pictures from the mind. Obviously it’s not a photograph of a dragon; dragons simply can’t be photographed. They’re magical after all.”
The girl seemed to deliberate on the logic of his last statement. Then she spoke up again, obviously delighted with having found a flaw in the man’s thinking. “You’re just being silly. Magic isn’t real either.” She flashed a look of triumph at the man, satisfied that her argument was complete and without any vulnerability.
“Oh, my dear,” he said, looking sad, “I’m so very unhappy to hear you say that. Your life must be very dreary indeed. How can you believe that when magic happens all around you all the time?”
She studied the man’s face for a moment, looking for any hint of deception on his part. Not finding any, she sat back, looked at her mother, and then back at the man before making a reply. In a somewhat softer tone, she said, “It does?”
“Oh yes, absolutely!” He held the book up again. “Why, this very book is a wonderful magical tool. With it, I can travel to places I’ve never been before, talk with new and wonderful people,” he looked around, checking that their conversation was not being overheard, “and some of those people aren’t people people, you know. They’re really elves, you know.” He straightened back up and continued. “I can even ride dragons! So don’t tell me that magic isn’t real.”
The girl was about to speak again when he purposely cut her words off. With an exaggerated prideful look, he looked down his nose and said, “I can even do magic that I’ll be you can’t do!”
She frowned at the old man’s boast and quickly replied. “No you can’t.”
“Ah, but I can. And furthermore, young lady, if you persist in believing that magic isn’t real, you’ll never be able to do the magic that I can do.” He tapped the book to punctuate his words and posed importantly, looking down his nose once again at her. He was sure she’d take his bait and he didn’t have to wait long to have his belief confirmed.
“What magic can you do?”
He raised his eyebrows dramatically. “I can read!” He puffed out his chest for emphasis.
The little girl smiled brightly and proclaimed that her mother was teaching her to read as well. He looked back and forth between the little girl and her mother several times until the child began to giggle at his exaggerated perplexed expression. Then he relaxed his posing and said in an off-hand tone, “Well, I suppose that’s because your mother is a great magician; she can do anything.”
“No she’s not; she’s my mommy.”
“Well, yes, isn’t that what I just said? That makes her the greatest magician there ever was. Now you’re being silly. Didn’t you know that mothers are magicians?” The girl looked back at her mother with newfound respect. Then she turned back to the man and answered his question with a small shake of her little head. “Of course they are,” he said. “Your mother can perform the most wonderful magic of all. She can do magic that is more powerful than all the other magics in the world… combined.”
A look of wonder came into the girl’s face as she looked wide-eyed at her mother. “What magic can you do, Mommy?” she asked almost in a whisper. The woman briefly looked up at the man and said to her daughter. “Why don’t you ask the man, Jenny?” The girl turned back to him and asked him the same question, still in a hushed voice.
“Well,” he said softly, “I’m surprised you have to ask, because I can see with my own eyes that she has already begun to teach you this great and wonderful magic.” The girl gave her mother another bewildered look and then turned to the old man again. “The greatest magic in the world,” he continued, “the most power magic that has ever been done by any person, elf, or even dragon, is called love, Jenny. It is what has made you, me, your brother, even your mommy and daddy all possible. And mommies can do it better than anybody. Obviously, you can do it too. And by the time you are a mommy, you’ll be able to do this magic just as well… maybe even better… than your mommy.” Then he stood back up and said, “That is, of course, if you stop all this foolishness about magic not being real.”
She quickly wanted to set the record straight with the man. “I love my mommy… and my daddy and Freddie,” she pointed to her brother, “and Grandma and Grandpa and Potty and…”
Her mother broke in to explain the last name when he raised his eyebrows. “Potty is our Potbellied pig. Jenny named her that when she was younger because… well.” The youngster just kept on reciting the people and things she loved, which was an impressive list to be sure, until she had to pause before finding anyone else whom she hadn’t already named.
Then the old man bowed low to the little girl, to her brother and finally to her mother. He stood back up again to give them a smile and a tip of his hat. “Then I shall ask the next very dragon that I see to watch over you and your family, Jenny-who-is-learning-the-greatest-magic-of-all, for you all are a great treasure indeed. And, as I’m sure your mother can tell you, dragons always do a very good job of guarding treasures.”
Then the old man turned and walked away, knowing that magic was alive and well in McDonalds.