Everyone should have a fairy godmother. I’ve just rediscovered mine. Catherine contacted me after thirty-eight years, and I received a package addressed to me in her Cyrillic-like scrawl, filled with artwork and my first novel, a handwritten story about a horse.
“I had to send these treasures back because we’re downsizing,” she wrote. “Though it hurt my heart to give them up.”
I couldn’t believe she’d saved the scribblings of a kid she’d lost touch with so long ago. Traveling to Monterey for a writer’s conference in March, I asked to meet her again, and she responded with a delighted “yes!”
Waiting for Catherine in front of the ugly square carbuncle of the Embassy Suites, I’m nervous. I hope she hasn’t changed too much, that I haven’t changed too much, that we’ll even recognize each other. I’m almost fifty now, and she’s close to seventy.
But I know Catherine instantly when she glides through the doors wearing a purple satin outfit made of fabric like the tents of Beduin princes. The years have been kind to her—she always had a free-spirited beauty with a lush figure and a waterfall of rippling hair the color of fall leaves. That tumble of hair is white now, but other than that, she’s unchanged.
Catherine enfolds me in the longest hug and I squeeze her close. She seems smaller than I remember, and she says, “You always knew how to give a good hug. It’s a lost art, you know.” She wants to ride the clear glass elevator inside the building. “I’ve never been on one of these before!”
We go up and down the elevator a few times, and through her eyes I see beauty in the spacious inner courtyard, in the lattice pattern of light falling through the glass struts. She claps her hands in pure joy. “Just look!” she says. Her delight strips the years away and I’m filled with childlike wonder, too.
We eat sunflower-sprout and nasturtium-trimmed salads at an organic food place and visit her home in a gracious 55-and-older complex, talking the while. The modest single-level apartment is filled with jewel-like art, antiques, and two boisterous cats.
“Are they kittens?” I ask, because the cats are so playful, stalking each other through sunbeams and tussling on the Persian rug.
“No, they’re sisters, both eight. It’s their vegan diet,” Catherine says. She’s been vegan since way before it was fashionable, but cats? Their youthful energy is about to convert me.
I met Catherine in 1965, when she was seventeen, and I was two months. My young parents had taken a “road trip” up Highway One to their friends’ to show off their new baby. When they pulled their live-in van up at Catherine’s family’s house in Carmel, she met a squalling scrap of misery.
To hear her tell it, my parents had tried everything in their repertoire to calm me—changed the diaper, walked me around, joggled and sang, offered a boob—to no avail. I was inconsolable.
“Give her to me,” Catherine tells me now, recounting the story, voice like a silken shawl embossed with memories, gazing at me unblinking. Growing up, my sister and I were sure she was part fairy because of the way her star-sapphire eyes scanned every hidden place. That's why we called her a “fairy” godmother. (She was never the ordinary godmother type.) “Your mom handed you over. You stopped crying, and we fell in love.” I can’t remember this, of course, but on some level I recognize it and feel that bond again.
Tears fill my eyes that such instant and committed love even exists.
Catherine was there for me and my sister through the tumultuous hippie years of my parents’ drinking, drugging and frequent moving. She sent letters and presents to Hawaii, and sewed us dresses of her own design that we wore until they fell apart. We visited her exotic homes when we came to California: a glass house on a cliff above the pounding sea, a cabin on a tawny mountain. I spent a summer with her when I was fifteen, went to Esalen and learned to meditate—and yet somehow (neither of us really know how) we lost each other after I graduated from high school.
Studies on resilient kids show a commonality: they find mentors outside the family who nurture their potential. I had a series: Catherine, followed by teachers Peggy, Tom, and Lindsay, Bob and Wendy who took me in to live with them in high school, and later, in college, my psychology professor, Judy, who encouraged my personal and professional dreams. These mentors were a ladder of hands that supported my growth and talent through many challenges, and Catherine was the first.
Catherine’s complex is surrounded by groomed paths that we walk together, holding hands. Hers feels soft and just a bit papery, and her bones are ephemeral. I haven’t held another woman’s hand in so many years I feel ashamed.
Catherine has survived a lot of adversity in the years since I’ve seen her: she’s beaten chronic pain and Lyme disease, cared for her mother through the crucible of Alzheimer’s until death. She’s endured unspeakable grief as two of her brothers committed suicide, and weathered economic and relationship challenges, always staying true to herself. No, life hasn’t been easy for Catherine, but you’d never know it. That’s part of her fairy magic.
Every now and again Catherine stops, and points with excitement: “Look! Just look!” A darting jay like a bolt of blue lighting. A tree filled with singing blackbirds. Marshland studded with the greening of early spring. Camellia petals, mysteriously fallen on velvet green lawn, like a message we should spend some time decoding. Nothing is ever hurried with a fairy godmother.
Catherine takes me back to the hotel in the late afternoon. I can hardly bear to say goodbye. “I won’t lose you again,” I tell her.
“You were never lost,” she laughs. “This was just the right time.”
I get out of her little blue Toyota and walk inside the Embassy Suites. Going up in the transparent elevator, I press my nose against the glass and really look at everything. I gasp at the speed, at the feeling like flying, at the whirl of the world going past, and the beauty of it. That’s my godmother’s fairy dust at work.
Were you lucky enough to have a godparent? Or be one to someone else? There's still time…
Beautiful post, Toby. What a wonderful gift.
Thanks, she is! I’d never have those early pieces of art and writing if she hadn’t saved them, just to mention one gift!
What an absolutely beautiful and inspiring story. To have a friend like that is truly a blessing. Mahalo for sharing.
And thank you for the lovely comment!
Oh Toby, what an amazing connection! Being able to reconnect after so long, and to have it still be so perfect and so magical, is such a blessing. I can absolutely feel the depth and strength of her love for you just in the love in her face in these pictures.
Just wanted to leave a note for your readers – it’s very dangerous to cats to have them on vegan diets without supplementation. Catherine sounds so amazing that I’m sure that she knows this, and the cats sound so healthy that I’m sure that she does it, but since it wasn’t mentioned here I needed to get it out. There are two essential nutrients that I know offhand (taurine and arachadonic acid, an amino acid and a fatty acid) – and there may be others – that only naturally occur in meat and that cats cannot synthesize in their own bodies. If anyone wants to put their cat on a vegan diet, they need to consult with a veterinarian about supplementation so that the cat gets all of the nutrients it needs and can enjoy a happy and healthy life. 🙂
Great input Shalora. Yeah I’m sure Catherine is doing everything right for her kitties, they were the picutre of health! But thanks for adding this for my readers!