The tabletop next to mine is littered with My Little Ponys. Three sisters with shiny black hair pulled back in ponytails patiently trot the plastic equine creatures across their placemats and back, waiting for dinner while their dad chats with the bartender about baseball and trout runs.
The youngest sister looks about 4 and sits closest to Dad. Her pony's lavender tail is shiny and frayed from too much combing. Her sisters are around 6 and 10. They have their father's thick eyebrows, olive skin and dark eyes. But their noses are of someone else, maybe Mom at home or at work, narrow and refined while Dad's is thick and flattened, the part of his face that turns red when he laughs.
The girls have no interest in the restaurant, in the fawning waitress who coos at them, in the warm Colorado night or the lovers dawdling on the patio. They are self-contained, brave and beautiful, sending their ponies out on rescue missions then grooming them and tucking them in to rest. They stare down the server who tries to woo them with promises of extra cherries. "This place is boring," says the middle girl to her dad when he asks what she thinks. Her pony takes off flying and lands in the makeshift corral on her older sister's placemat.
She oozes the qualities every woman wants: she's authentic, opinionated and looks great at the same time.
Dad is patient and uninterested but pretends to be interested in the My Little Ponys. "What's her name?" he asks, reaching out to stroke the purple mane of the littlest girl's pony. "He's not a girl," she says, drawing her toy back toward her chest. "His name is Chester." Lesson for Dad: Don't touch the ponies unless you're invited first. If you're invited, be honored.
It still amazes me, just two generations later, to see girls who have lives with their fathers. Looking back at my childhood, I can remember exceptional fathers who cooked pancakes on a Saturday morning or helped with homework. But fathers who hung out with their girls were rare. The mothers did the shuffling from place to place, the feeding, the dressing and the counseling of female children. Exceptions were girls who excelled in a sport and whose fathers coached them, but those opportunities too were rare. There was no club soccer; Little League baseball didn't allow girls and girls didn't have leagues of their own, at least not in the small Kentucky town where I grew up.
My daughter's life with her dad was very different. He faithfully attended parents' nights at school; coached her first softball team, the Shooting Stars; brushed her long hair, and traveled with her. He took her seriously and expected her to have a serious life. He understood basic important rules about being a father to a girl: Never scare her, always protect her; never belittle her, always raise her up; let her know that she can do anything she wants to do; understand that she is full of emotions that make her rich, complex and fully human.
My most tender vision of the two of them comes from photographs. When she was 8, she traveled with her dad to Korea to pick up our newly adopted son, a tiny baby, while I prepared for his arrival at home. In one of the photos, she sits on a stone wall in front of an ancient Japanese pagoda, her long blond hair hanging in neat dog-eared ponytails. Strapped to her back is Panda, her favorite stuffed animal, large and cumbersome with a head larger than my daughter's. She wanted to bring Panda to Asia and her dad said OK. In every shot from that trip, Panda stares out at the camera from over her shoulder.
The girls at the next table are eating now, sharing occasional bites with their ponies. They giggle at a story their dad is telling. He asks for a take-out dinner for Mom. Another lesson: Treat their mother with love and respect. I think about my daughter and her crazy, brave, autonomous life. I remember her at 7, braiding her My Little Pony's tail and plastering its hide with heart-shaped stickers.
The family gets up to leave and the father brushes the oldest girl's loose hair off her cheek. His eyes pop wide with a surprised look. "What?" she says. "Oh, I just forgot how beautiful you are," he says. She reaches up to graze his scratchy chin. Oh yes, that. Don't forget to tell her how beautiful she is.