I spent a good part of this winter day looking through old family pictures. I was looking for one special photograph somewhere amidst the thousands that are in boxes I store in a cabinet in the family room. And while I pride myself on keeping pictures, documents, artifacts that are important to our family’s history, I am woefully inept at keeping them organized.
What prompted me to take this extended walk down memory lane today was a series of photos that I received by email from a friend. He had been telling me stories about his life while traveling through Central America and about the wonderful people who had become part of his extended family when he lived there. Attached to the email were pictures.
When I scrolled down to view his pictures, I was totally struck by one of them. It was a simple picture really – one that millions of families might have of their little girls. This little girl was beautiful – bronze skin, dark brown curly hair, wearing a floppy hat, the brim resting atop sunglasses that were way too big on her. In her pink sleeveless shirt, with her gold pierced earrings, chubby cheeks and pointy chin, she was smiling for the camera as if she just knew that she was the most the most wonderful, beautiful, amazing little girl on earth. Later, he told me that those overlarge sunglasses and that funny white hat were his, and sure enough when I went back to look at the pictures he had sent, there was another – this one of him with the hat sitting askew on his head (not big on him at all) with the same sun glasses, looking small, on a chain around his neck. And in this picture, he is holding the little girl and both of them are smiling so big that you can almost hear their laughter erupting from the image.
These are simple photographs, really. But they moved me deeply. And they are the reason that I spent my day rummaging through boxes of my past looking for a special photograph – one that also conveys that special bond of love between a grown man and a little girl.
I went looking for a picture of my daughter Allison when she was just about the same as the girl in my friend’s picture. And she too is “dressing up,” wearing clothes that belonged to me – a pink moiré dress with a satin ruffle at the neck – the dress that I had worn to my Sweet Sixteen decades ago. She had found it that morning and decided to wear it, though it is way too big for her. It was falling off her shoulders and dragging on the ground. She too is wearing a goofy hat (probably her father’s) and sunglasses that overwhelm her small heart shaped face. And in this picture, she is standing next to her daddy, holding his hand both of them looking directly at the camera, with gargantuan smiles on their faces looking like he is escorting her across the stage in a beauty pageant. .
And you can tell that she just knows that her daddy loves her and that she is glamorous and fabulous in that dress and that the world is hers to conquer.
I never did find that picture today, but I don’t need to see it to recall the image nor the way that photo, like my friend’s earlier today, makes me feel. What moves me so much about these pictures is the complete and total lack of self consciousness on the part of the little girls and the total love and acceptance on the part of the grown men.
How powerful for a little girl to have a grown man that she loves enter into her imaginative world on her terms– to become the client in her fictive beauty salon and allow her to groom his hair with gel and to smile with approval when seeing his spikey image in the mirror. How affirming for a little girl to be able to have a grown man play games with her and have him follow her rules, even if they are arbitrary, even if they change with no notice, because he knows that in going along with her game, he is helping her believe in and develop her ability to act on her own behalf in the world – not just submit to or be manipulated by the will of others.
Can you think of a more important lesson for a young girl to learn?
But the impact of this love isn’t just one way. I thought about this when I looked at the first picture, where the little girl was wearing the sunglasses. Reflected in the dark green lenses was the image of the man who was taking the picture.
The gift for the man in this dance of love is that he gets to see himself through the eyes of the girl who loves him – he catches a glimpse of the loving, generous, playful, and deeply human being that he is to her. And seeing this, he is challenged to be that best version of himself for her – and always.
There is a part of me that is jealous when I see pictures like these. Hard for a 57 year old woman to admit that she’s jealous of little girls, especially when one of them is her own daughter. But I never knew that kind of love and acceptance from any man when I was a girl. My father was cold and distant, judgmental and sometimes even cruel before he abandoned me altogether. My mother was an only child so I had no uncles. There was no extended family, no beloved family friends.
It took me a really long time to believe that I had any agency in the world or that what went on in my imaginative life could be of interest to any one else. It took me forever to believe that any man would find me interesting, worthy of his time, worthy of his love.
But these girls — ah these girls. They believe in themselves. And they always will.