A Letter To My 'Fairy Godmother' Who Taught Me What It Means To Be Human

I met you on a bench and only know your first name – but our chats are the highlight of my week.
Victoria Richards: 'Feeling heard, without judgement – takes the weight off.'
Victoria Richards
Victoria Richards: 'Feeling heard, without judgement – takes the weight off.'

You’re reading our series The Women Who Came Before Us. At a time when the generations can seem more divided than ever, HuffPost UK writers thank women in their family – or chosen family – who paved the way for the lives they lead today. Read more letters here.

Dear Fairy Godmother,

I don’t know how to spell your first name – it could be Gilly, or Jilly, or something completely different. I don’t know where you live; only that it’s somewhere within a two-mile radius of where I live.

I don’t know if you are married, divorced, or single, by choice or circumstance. I don’t know if you have children, or grandchildren. But you’ve taught me so much about what it means to be human – and our regular chats, on a bench by our local lake in east London, are the highlight of my week.

Before we met, I’d seen you around the area, cycling with your little dog trotting by your side. Your face always looked calm and kind, and I wondered about you. Wondered where you were going, where you’d been; and why you always chose that time of day to get there.

I wondered if you’d seen me rushing to school with my two young children, looking harassed, sometimes losing my temper and shouting. I wondered if you thought me a bad mother, and wanted desperately to tell you that I was trying my best; but that the pressures of doing it all – getting them dressed, giving them breakfast, the endless negotiating over TV or school shoes or homework – sometimes made me feel like I was drowning.

The lake and bench where we first met.
Victoria Richards
The lake and bench where we first met.

The day we finally spoke for the first time, it had been a stressful morning – and it wasn’t even 9am. I’d dropped the kids at school and nursery and was feeling the heavy burden of parenthood. I regretted the way I’d barked at my children, three and eight, to “hurry up”, and pledged to say sorry as soon as I saw them again. I was wearing a bright gold and orange dress, something to lift my spirits. I took my usual path home through the woods and paused by the local lake to sit on a bench and breathe for a moment. There you were.

I nodded shyly, not knowing whether I should sit down and join you, but you moved over to make room for me. We sat together with the winter sun on our faces. You mentioned the swans gliding over the glass surface of the water, said something like, “Aren’t they magnificent?” Then you turned, and asked me a question I’ll never forget: “What do you think it means, to be human?”

I didn’t know how to answer, but I loved that instead of ‘small talk’, you’d asked me something interesting and profound. For a moment I even wondered if you were real. I thought and thought, before finally saying, “To listen. Being human means listening to each other.”

You nodded and said: “Compassion. That’s what it is.”

“You turned, and asked me something I’ll never forget: “What do you think it means, to be human?””

It wasn’t all pre-9am philosophy... we talked about work, too. You told me of the many lives you’ve lived in your 70-or-so years: as a chef, a counsellor. You told me about a friend of yours who was going through a hard time; and about a trip you were shortly going to be making overseas.

You told me how vital you thought it was to exchange stories and to “peer support” those who matter to you. I told you how difficult it felt sometimes, being a mother. How little time it feels like I have to myself.

You nodded and offered understanding. “I think young mothers like you have it worse than any other generation – because you’re expected to do it all,” you said. “Have a career, be present, be perfectly involved with your children – yet independent, too.” Having your empathy and compassion – feeling heard, without judgement – made my shoulders feel significantly lighter.

Since then, we’ve developed a gentle routine – when we see each other, we greet each other with easy familiarity; like old friends. We talk about our lives, without needing to get into the minutiae of biographical details. We always cut to the chase. What we’re really doing is sharing our hearts.

I’ve started thinking of you as my ‘fairy godmother’, and look forward to the sight of you, on your bike with the little wicker basket.

That first day, as we parted you told me you would “celebrate my gold and orange dress”. That it gave you “joy”. We may not know more than each other’s first names, but I celebrate you, and the serenity and joy you give to me, too.

Every single Monday.

Thank you,