She only weighs forty-five pounds and stands about so high, and her energy is boundless. It's solar, I swear. She soaks up sunshine like a sponge, gets brown as the earth, then flings those sunbeams all around. The bleached whiteness of her hair makes you know a princess really could spin gold from straw.
Her voice is soft, her eyes filled with wonder. ''They're hazel, Grandma,'' she corrects me when I call them brown.
Nicole just spent two weeks with us. Came on an airplane all alone. Her great-grandmother was sure she'd never make it. A kid of five flying across the country . . . alone . . . just one more proof that the world is going wild. ''If her folks didn't know better, you should have.''
Time too, we learned, is jet propelled. Two weeks of bedtime stories, long walks, a circus, and a fair fled in a flash - just like that cardinal she spied at the feeder. Rushing to the kitchen, she had grabbed my hand. Finger to her lips, eyes very wide, she had tiptoed to the dining room window and away he flew . . . every time.
Bedtime stories were long and filled with fancy. ''No more Jack-a-dory!'' she instructed Grandpa. He cheated only once:
I'll tell you a story of Jack-a-dory,
Now my story's begun.
I'll tell you another of his brother,
Now my story's done.
One night from the hall, I heard her crying softly. She buried her head on my shoulder and hugged tightly. Grandma cuddled and kissed and shushed. Pulling away, Nicole blinked and said, ''Don't feel bad, Grandma. Did you think I hurt somewhere? I don't. Anyway, everything is OK now.''
As I was descending the stair, she called. ''You're a nice lady . . . you're kind.''
On our walks, a stick became a magic staff; a shed was for the cookie monster to hide behind; a fence was where the zebra got his stripes when he pressed too near the picket posts which had been freshly painted.
At the circus we watched elephants, lions, and trapeze artists perform small miracles while Nicole ate popcorn and cotton candy. At the fair she bounced and blooped on a big inflated blob and bought a balloon. We rode three times on a Ferris wheel and waved to Grandpa waayyy down there.
On my birthday, Nicole painstakingly frosted two hamburger buns (one for us, one for the birds). She decorated them with colored candies and planted tiny candles all around. Grandpa thought it was a really big joke - Nicole decorating those buns.
''Now tell me,'' her mother pleaded when Nicole got back home, ''of all the things you did, what was the most fun of all?''
''The very best?''
''The very best! I'd like to know.''
Nicole thought awhile. Her face lit up and she was sure it was the time when the big ball grew small from sitting in the sun, after Grandma threw it up on the garage roof as she always did so Nicole could catch it when it came rolling down. ''But, do you know what?'' Her eyes grew big. ''It stayed there!'' Wonder of wonders. Did her mother really understand? ''It just sat there, Mom!''
''And that was the greatest thing of all?''
''Uh-huh.'' Amid gales of giggles her head bobbed up and down. An afterthought: ''Grandpa got it down and pumped it up, and then he played ball with me . . . and he never does.''
Serendipity come alive! And a dollop of wisdom from the heart of a child. How often we overlook life's simple, most precious surprises in favor of the Ferris wheel ride.
This morning is for remembering and packing away the toys. A page of funny stick people with big happy faces tops a stack of magazines. A magic marker drawing of butterflies and crawling bugs is stuck to my refrigerator door; next to it is her hand, outlined in crayon with red fingernails and a gold bracelet. The frazzled teddy bear that has befriended three generations sits propped near the sliding glass door - the better to watch the squirrels through a maze of smudged fingerprints.
The house reverberates with quiet. Nicole's absence raises a mathematical mystery. How can a void so vast be filled by forty-five pounds!