The little girl’s voice dripped with optimism. I couldn't see her face, but I could hear her just around the corner on the next aisle at the grocery store.
By her voice alone, I judged her to be 6 or 7 years old and she was engaged in a lively debate with her father about what she would be when she grew up. Her first two choices were "judo expert" or “the kind of astronaut that flies to Mars.”
I laughed out loud.
The voice continued, “What do you choose, Daddy?”
The man’s slow response made me smile. He was so kind, so tenderhearted. “It’s not up to me, sweetheart, it’s up to you.”
The precocious little voice chattered on just feet away, but out of sight.
I was there to pick up bread, but the more I listened to this highly entertaining discussion around the corner, the harder it became to find that special brand my wife loves so much.
I guess I wasn’t looking that hard.
The playful father-daughter banter continued with this bubbly young lady rattling off other possibilities should her career in the martial arts or space travel fall through.
I smiled again at this father's warm, loving voice. He sounded like Tom Bosley's beloved Howard Cunningham and Bill Cosby's iconic Cliff Huxtable all wrapped up in one.
It struck me that every little girl, every big-dreaming, big-idea, big-hearted princess deserves a father exactly like this one. I hope if someone ever overheard me talking to my own daughters they might think the very same thing.
After another moment of innocent eavesdropping, I eased around the corner to take a peek at the little family.
The girl, every bit as darling as I imagined, wore a white karate outfit with her brown hair in a tight ponytail.
The dad was tall and thin with jet-black hair and a classic punk rock haircut. Tattoos covered his arms and one inched up from underneath his T-shirt collar, crawling up his neck toward his scruffy chin.
The voice-to-visual juxtaposition was startling. Guys that look like that can’t be so sweet and sensitive with their little girls, can they?
I confess that tattoos are not my thing. The closest thing I've ever had to body art was a cool temporary tattoo I got at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii. It lasted a few days and, admittedly, made me want to buy a motorcycle.
I did not.
But I did experience the strangest emotion casserole while standing there in the grocery store clutching a squished loaf of whole-grain bread. I felt such happiness and satisfaction that this little girl has a man in her life who loves her and believes that she can become any one of those things, or maybe all of them.
But I also felt shame because I knew that if I had seen the man first before hearing his voice, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to listen. Certainly my impression of him would've been completely different.
Today, weeks after the experience, I’m still embarrassed.
I should have known better. Great dads come in all packages, don’t they? They are pierced and tattooed. They wear denim overalls, expensive suits and cotton golf shirts.
They are doctors, lawyers, teachers, auto mechanics and the self-employed. Some are even self-employed tattoo artists.
Sure, some dads might wear clothes I wouldn’t dream of wearing or pierce things I don't believe we should pierce. But do men with conservative haircuts and outfits from The Men’s Wearhouse really have the market cornered on being a divine dad?
Just because we might disagree with someone’s cover doesn’t give us the right to judge the story inside.
What if every single time you saw someone who didn't fit your mind’s definition of a good parent or a good Sunday school teacher or a good neighbor, you closed your eyes and imagined what they sound like when they tuck in their little ones or wax on about dreams and grand plans?
As I watched this man and his angel move from one aisle to the next, I wondered how many good moms and good dads I've overlooked because they didn't meet the stereotype.
I picked up two things that day at the grocery store: my wife's favorite bread and a reminder that you certainly don't have to have tattoos or piercings to be a good dad. But just because you do, doesn't mean you aren't.