We were walking across the parking lot in what is rare for Southern California in the spring – a small rainstorm. She was holding my hand as I led her to the sidewalk and under an awning to get out of the rain. She didn’t realize that we were headed three doors down to Baskin Robbins for a scoop of ice cream. Her soccer practice was canceled because of the rain and I thought it would be a nice substitute for not being able to practice her sport.
On the sidewalk, we walked and she talked – she’s a talker. I put my hand on the door to Baskin Robbins and she was still unaware where we were going. My muscles contracted to pull the heavy door open and right as the cold rushed out, she asked, “James, why do people think you’re my dad?”
I froze from the question that a 5 year old girl just asked. She froze because the open door revealed the ice cream shop and she wanted permission to run in and choose her flavor.
She looked up at me and I gave her the nod and she was off to the races. Her faced pressed on the display glass to see the ice cream as close as possible was the finish line. The two young girls behind the counter tracked our every motion. We were probably two of only a few brave souls that day who ventured out for ice cream in the misty downfall of Southern California rain.
I honestly stopped thinking about the question she asked a few moments ago because I was too busy trying to keep her from pulling down every piece of promotional material teetering on the display case while excitedly saying that she wanted all the flavors. Eventually she settled for peanut butter cup ice cream, a flavor that was a surprise from her usually colorful pick like rainbow sherbert or cool sounding like rocky road. But peanut butter cup ice cream it was.
I ordered just one scoop for her and waited for it at the register. Just a few feet from me was the only kids table in the place which was a tiny picnic table with round disks for seats that were no bigger than a frisbee. She crawled to the inside of the table against the wall and was flopping with excitement for her scoop of peanut butter cup ice cream.
I sat across from her, with my knees bent into my chest and my back to the world and all my attention focused on her. Just how she likes it. I slid her cup of ice cream over and put three napkins beside it, then she dug in like it was the last ice cream on earth. I told her that I wanted two bites and she nodded then she pulled back a bite that was just about to land in the cavern of her mouth. I told her that I didn’t want that bite, I’d figure out which bite I wanted and let her know. She said okay and then went back to enjoying her ice cream.
She was talking less now because she was busy shoveling ice cream in her gullet. She was trapped on the inside and I didn’t have to worry about her pulling down everything that wasn’t hot glued to the counter. Both of these things allowed me to relax and take a breath. My mind drifted to the question that she asked what seemed like days ago, but was only a matter of minutes before. Before I could dig deep into my thoughts I was distracted by a little chunk of peanut butter cup on one side of her ice cream cup.
I told her that I was ready for my bite now. She took the little pink spoon and got a tiny piece of plain ice cream and held it out to me and I shook my head. I told her that I’d pick out my bite, so she finished off the ice cream on her spoon and handed it to me.
I dug in and got a nice combination of peanut butter cup and ice cream. She said, “Whoa, good pick. I see the good stuff is on the side.” She’d just been eating bite after bite from the top, not looking around for the diversity of the scoop. I nodded and said, “That’s right” then handed the spoon back to her. I told her that I still had one bite to go.
Now that I had a rush of sugar, I was ready to tackle the meaning behind the question she asked me when we entered. So I asked her, “Do you remember the question that you asked me before we came in?”
She shook her head no, while melted ice cream accumulated around her lips. I thought it was an important question and I was a little disappointed that she move on from it. Then I perked up as she said, “Oh, you mean about the money?”
That’s wasn’t the question I was talking about. That was from earlier when we were adding up a quarter and two nickels to learn about money. So I told her that wasn’t the question, it was the one after that. She shook her head again and took another bite. I said, “You asked me a question about what people thought.”
“Oh” she said, with a mouthful of ice cream, “Why do people think you’re my dad?”
I asked, “Why do you think that people think I’m your dad?” She wondered if it was because I was a boy and she was a girl and I told her that could be part of it but it’s not really why people would say that.
I asked her the question again, “Why would someone think that I’m your dad?” She quickly threw it back at me, “Is it because you take care of me?” I nodded and told her it was. She then admitted that she confuses me with her dad a lot. She calls me her dad and calls her dad James. She said it apologetically and I told her that was okay because I’m kind of like a dad to her. She said, “you are kind of like my dad.”
“I kind of am” I said. She nodded and dug into the dwindling scoop of ice cream. I asked her if I could have my second and last bite before she polished it all off and she handed over the spoon. This time I took a scoop that had just plain ice cream and left the rest of the peanut butter and chocolate goodness for her. As I took that bite, I realized that we’re both on a journey to figure out how to put labels on the bond that we have created. When I’m at work, I refer to her as my kid and she confuses me with her biological father. I realized that we have a father/daughter bond no matter what description our relationship is given.