The Saturday before Valentine's Day the P.T.A. of our school sponsored a father/daughter dance. Every day for the week before, I heard little else from the seven of my girls who were planning to attend.
"We went shopping for my dress last weekend. It's so pretty. I really want you to see it. Are you going to come to the dance to see me?"
All the conversations were startlingly similar. The girls were beside themselves with excitement. Many had appointments for special hair attention and for manicures and pedicures. As we left school the Friday before, without exception, each girl had to remind me about the dance and ask me one more time (even though I had repeatedly explained I had other plans) if I could come and watch them.
When we talked about their weekend on Monday, as is our custom, the chatter was all about how they had done the chicken dance. Each time a girl shared about attending the dance with her dad I got to see some part of the chicken dance and hear the catchy rhythm. They laughed in conspiracy about how silly their dads looked.
After that we all pretty much forgot about the affair in the swirl and chaos that is typical of life in an elementary school. Until the pictures came this week.
It was last recess when I found them in my box. I had maybe ten minutes to scan them before the kids came in. Sitting at my desk, I opened one envelope at a time, barely breathing. I was totally unprepared for the powerful impact those pictures had on me.
The dads came in a variety of sizes, shapes and ages. Their expressions ranged from proud, to serene, to stiff and uncomfortable. They were all touching their daughters in some way. Some had their girls on their laps. Some knelt beside them. Some stood with arms wrapped around, careful not to cover the beautiful dresses.
The girls, however, could have been interchangeable.
Granted, they too came in a variety of shapes and sizes. Their dresses were all different - some little girl cute, and some older girl sophisticated. Their hair was fixed and curled, although one girl's wild red hair looked as uncombed and untamable as it does every day in class. Some wore makeup and jewelry borrowed from their moms, while others were simply sparkling clean.
What made them interchangeable was the smiles on their faces. These girls beamed as though they had been given the richest treasure on earth. Their little bodies leaned toward or into their dads bigger bodies. I've never seen that kind of unfettered, innocent, perfect happiness so clearly before.
I made the most of those ten minutes, studying each picture as deeply as the time would allow. Eight or nine year old girls. Loved. Safe. Cherished. Adored. On a date with the first and most important men in their lives. Happy. Unafraid. Whole.
Some tiny spark of my inner eight year old longed to crawl into any one of the pictures, to be any one of those loved little girls, to experience the safety of a father's love. I ache for her, knowing that she will never have that. I celebrate with her as she sees firsthand that dads can love daughters in ways that honor them both, and that the fact that she didn't have that is not about her. She knows those little girls well enough to understand she was no better or worse, no more disobedient or behaved, no more dishonest or truthful than any of them. Yet they are loved without reservation or condition. It's there. In those pictures.
And so might she have been with a daddy who had a different heart. Hers beats strong and free, finally, of the tyranny of his shame. She and I dance together - a happy chicken dance with arms akimbo and knees a-knockin' - laughing for the sheer joy of being alive.
photo from Flickr