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We knew before we asked yet we asked anyway. Her mother and I exchanged a nonverbal glance as the words fell at her feet and before they collected themselves into a complete question she had already answered. For the last month or so we’ve eaten at a little place with noodles in its title and in its bowls and we’ve done so at least once a week because, for now, this is her favorite place to eat.

She has the buttered noodles with some sort of seasoning sprinkled on top while her mother and I rotate selections from the menu for the sake of something different; when we’re done we all split a cookie or two. We soak in the structure of our surroundings yet block out the humming chatter of fellow patrons as we twirl our forks until the perfect bite is held hostage by the prongs. We eat. We eat until we’re full and we talk and we break a large round gift from heaven’s kitchen into thirds allowing chocolate chips to melt on our tongues before we gather our things to leave.

The other night on one of our weekly trips, the room contained more occupants than normal so I quickly scanned the seating options before selecting a table next to a young couple with an aisle between us. I situated Madison and took a seat next to her while Allison positioned herself across from us. We removed the paper protecting our straws and picked up the conversation we set down to order when I noticed the female half of the couple staring at me. She caught my glance and maintained eye contact so we shared a polite smile then I looked away.

When I casually looked around the room a few minutes later, I saw her whispering to the male companion she was sharing a table and a meal with while her eyes and smile were still pointed in our direction. He turned around. He smiled, too. They began to whisper again and I nervously texted Allison, a discrete effort intended to inform her of the prying eyes in our vicinity. Should I be self conscious? Was there something on my face? They didn’t look familiar, but should I recognize them somehow? We ate, we talked and we split our cookie and when we got up to leave that young couple stopped us as I adjusted Madison within my arms. The same uninterrupted stares and the same bright smiles remained although I realized they weren’t directed at me, they were focused on the toddler I was holding instead.

“She’s beautiful,” the young lady said.

I left her with a wide smile of gratitude and an audible thank you that seemed much slower and heavier in delivery than I intended. Of course, I agree with her sweet observation but it’s nice to hear it from someone else and from a complete stranger nonetheless. It’s also grounding and humbling to know that this exchange wasn’t about me. I’m never surprised to find the constant reminders of this lesson along the way, a lesson I learned the day this child of mine was born. Parenting, by definition, is all about the children and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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