On the Trail Of a Fairy Queen (February 2017)

Also known as “I Found A Story: The Final Chapter.” Inspired by her autistic son and his love of the outdoors, this special ed teacher created a magical village in the woods near her home.

By Elizabeth Ludlow Vaccariello

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Matthew Cohen for Reader’s Digest

There’s a place near my home where fairies live.

I’ve seen their wooden houses, knocked on their tiny doors, marveled at their itty-bitty bedrooms. It’s a neighborhood, really, a magical trail in our local nature reserve where several dozen structures are tucked into nooks, crannies, and tree hollows all along the one-mile loop.

It’s a place where acorns are pillows, fungus becomes decorative siding, and a log might hide a miniature dining room. On a Sunday afternoon, you can hear children squeal, “I found another one!” And if the animals or the elements—or vandals—harm a dwelling, someone will mysteriously take it home, replace some hinges or string, and return it.

That mysterious someone is Therese Ojibway, 60, a special education teacher from Millburn, New Jersey, who started transforming this area of the South Mountain Reservation five years ago. The fourth of 11 children, Therese climbed trees and built fairy landscapes from moss with her sisters in their hometown of Lansing, Michigan. Her mother gave them all the gift of imagination. “I remember deciding that hollyhocks could make good wheels for fairy carts,” Therese says.

She graduated from Dartmouth, married, and started what she hoped would be a big family. When her first child, Clinton, received an autism diagnosis at age two, she decided to devote herself to him. One part of her plan was to balance his hours of early intervention therapy with time outdoors. “The woods were a place I didn’t have to worry about him,” Therese says. “I could follow his lead.”

Clinton stopped often to look inside hollow logs, touch moss, and pick up rocks and leaves. He forced Therese to slow down, and as she did, the embers of her childhood imagination began to glow. She’d admire a fungus fan and imagine it as a camelback couch. A piece of bark with a hole? The perfect door with a window!

They enjoyed the magic of the outdoors for years, but it wasn’t until Clinton was in his 20s that Therese started to tuck things from the woods into her pockets. Her marriage was strained. When things got tense at home, Therese built benches, beds, swings, and ladders. Then she planted them in the woods.

As the homes appeared, the fairies moved in and word spread. Children left gifts of pinecones, seashells, and hematite and other sparkly rocks.

In this world, too, the trolls caused trouble. On a walk one Sunday, Therese stood over a pile of sticks that used to be a fairy gazebo. She scooped the remnants into her arms and trudged on. She learned long ago to push past life’s disappointments.

Years ago, Therese spent several weekends on her most elaborate fairy house. Its two stories featured a moss-covered roof, a fireplace, even an inside staircase. Her husband was annoyed: “You’re putting all this work into it, and they’re just gonna ruin it.”

A few weeks later, the house disappeared. With the tenacity and patience of someone who spends her life working with autistic children—who has devoted 25 years to helping her son be his best self—Therese’s reaction was wonderfully zen. “The fun is putting it out there,” she says. “Sharing the magic.”


About the author:

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Photo: Steve Vaccariello

Liz Vaccariello is a former editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest and Prevention magazines, now worked as a editor of Parents magazine from Meredith Corp. With her husband, Steve, and mom to twin daughters, Sophia and Olivia. Author of her book, Flat Belly Diet! (2009), 400-Calorie Fix (2010), The Digest Diet (2012), 21-Day Tummy (2014), and The Stop & Drop Diet (2015). Liz regularly appears on national programs such as The DoctorsTodayCBS This Morning and Dr. Oz. She has appeared on Dr. PhilThe ViewRegis & KellyExtra and two seasons of The Biggest Loser.

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