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How to Wish, What to Wish For

Sean Hurley
Sam and the leaves

We’ve all thrown pennies in fountains or wished upon stars. In this recollection, NHPR’s Sean Hurley recounts the way his son Sam came up with his own way of wishing - and his own special thing to wish for.

Editor's note: As with all stories by Sean Hurley, we highly recommend listening to the broadcast version

About ten years ago, around this falling time of year, everything dropping down, leaves, pine needles, apples, the sky, the temperature, a little snow, my wife and I took our four year-old son Sam for a short walk to the sandpits near our house.

Sam had just discovered leaves – jumping in them, smelling them, tossing them into the air like his own possible feathers - and he found a leaf in our yard and carried it with him down the street like a pinwheel that didn’t spin. Where our road breaks for the woods there’s a small apple tree and Sam found an apple below it and brought that along too.

Now, these were wishing years for us. We wished upon shooting stars and upon the first star we saw at night and any eyelashes that fell on any cheeks and we’d throw shiny coins in fountains.

I don’t think we ever came across a wishing well, but we did find a wooden wishing box at a toy store somewhere and we wrote our wishes down on scrap paper and folded these and pressed them through the slot and into the darkness with the other wishes.

My wife Lois likes to keep her wishes secret – but Sam has always liked to tell us what he’s wishing for…toys and telescopes and rockets and sometimes made up things as well – mambapambas and cottisses. I wasn’t a very good wisher back then and would spend my wishing time picturing trips to Acapulco…and big game show prize package extravaganzas.

Or I’d just make use of movie wishes, like young George Bailey’s cigar lighter wish for a million dollars in It’s A Wonderful Life.

I liked to daydream more about the clichés of wishing, I suppose and mostly never wanted any of the things I wished for - or wished for anything I truly wanted.

But on that day in fall a decade ago, on the forest path on our way to the sandpits, leaf in one hand, apple in the other, Sam came upon a last thing.

A pine needle overhead, like a lost second hand, hanging almost invisibly from the strand of a spider web. Sam handed his mother the apple and me the leaf and pulled the astonishing pine needle down from the air.

In the sandpits, he led us along to an old excavator that hadn’t moved in years. Its windows smashed clouds, its bucket half-full of rain water.  Sam dropped the hanging pine needle into the rainwater. Then took the leaf from me and the apple from my wife and threw those in. He stared at the floating things and then asked us what we’d wished for. Lois’ lips were sealed, as usual and I said I had no idea that we’d been wishing. 

“What did you wish for?” my wife asked him.

“Everything!” he said.

“All of it?” she asked. “The whole thing?” and he laughed and said “No!” in the sad shocked tone of a boy with ridiculous parents – a father who had no idea when to wish, a mother who wouldn’t say what she’d wished for and neither parent knowing the true meaning of everything.

Sam is 14 now and those early wishing days are long behind us.  But down in the sandpits when we still sometimes go, I’ll wander over to the old excavator and throw a rock or a leaf or a handful of sand into the excavator bucket and I’ll wish for what I always wish for now.

Which is everything. But Sam’s everything, as I think of it. Which isn’t all the things in the world, which really isn’t anything in the world.

When George Bailey as a boy closed his eyes and crossed his fingers and tried his luck on the old cigar lighter, saying "Wish I had a million dollars! Hot dog!"

Wasn’t he just really wishing for the everything of a wonderful life?


Sean Hurley lives in Thornton with his wife Lois and his son Sam. An award-winning playwright and radio journalist, his fictional “Atoms, Motion & the Void” podcast has aired nationally on NPR and Sirius & XM Satellite radio. When he isn't writing stories or performing on stage, he likes to run in the White Mountains. He can be reached at

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