The little girl in the pink polka-dot dress and her charming younger brother, who wore a cute plaid hat to complete his outfit, caught my attention.

They had accompanied their parents to Panera’s, and chosen seats nearby where I sat doing book editing. Occasionally glancing in their direction, I noticed the parent’s attentiveness and the children’s comfortable banter between bites.

When they stood to leave, the father walked toward me first. “What a lovely family you have,” I exclaimed.

He smiled and thanked me. His wife called her thanks from their table, before turning to gather her children. I smiled as they passed by and returned to my project.

Soon a fluttering of pink caught my eye. As I turned around, I looked into the face of the sweet girl, who hovered shyly near the back of my chair.

“Come here!” I said, as I reached out. After our hug, I kept my arm around her. “You’re so cute. I like your pink glasses. What’s your name?”

“Rachel.” Her eyes smiled at me and then glanced toward the door.

As I turned further, I caught a glimpse of her father standing out of the way, giving us girls our special moment. When I released her, Rachel smiled and waved goodbye, as if signaling that her personal mission had been accomplished.

For me that was a magical moment. I contemplated the changes I’ve seen in my life that enabled me to welcome Rachel to my side with such joy and delight. Her personal desire to spend that moment with me left a deep impression in my heart.

I celebrated that I’ve become more open with children. You see, I’ve always felt a bit disadvantaged because I didn’t grow up with younger siblings or raise children of my own. Many times I felt inadequate to reach out to them.

God began some specialized training after He took my brother Greig to heaven in 2010. With His guidance, I became a hands-on aunt to Greig’s four adult children, which extended to three great nieces and eventually one great-great niece. Gradually I learned to relax and be myself and genuinely enjoy their presence and their love. Together we’ve created priceless memories.

The greatest difference I’ve seen is with my 10-year-old great niece Piper. At first, I worried if she would have a good time at my home and enjoy me personally. Eventually I realized I didn’t need to entertain her. What she wanted most were my time and attention. Piper accepted me simply as her Aunt Gail without any expectations.

I thought I loved Piper. In truth, I sincerely desired to love her but remained a bit guarded. God opened my heart fully during one of her recent visits. New and unfamiliar emotions bubbled up from inside of me.

By embracing those emotions, I was able to begin loving Piper in a way I’d never loved her or any of my family. Her love and acceptance gave me courage to let my heart be more visible and verbally express my love to her.

This new freedom around children is what enabled me to open myself to my little friend Rachel. She’ll never know the magic she created when she smiled and hugged her way into my heart. I loved that we could be together, enjoying each other, without expectations.

That’s what God loves, too. He invites us, as His children, to relax in His presence and simply be who we are.