Earlier this week I joined a friend for lunch in a local restaurant. While we were eating, a small girl and her mother came through the front door and headed for the table closest to us. The child instantly caught my eye. She was beautiful, stunningly beautiful: a perfect face and a mass of golden curly hair that reminded me of the girl who sings "Tomorrow, Tomorrow," in the Broadway musical, Annie.
As the mother and daughter came nearer, I smiled at the child, wiggled my fingers in a miniature wave and said, "hi." I half-expected her to look away, perhaps move to her mother's other side so that she felt protected from a stranger.
But she didn't. Instead, she instantly smiled, waved, and said "hi" back to me.
I must tell you. The child was so charming that one might be excused if, for a moment, he seriously questioned the Calvinistic doctrine of total depravity. At least in her case. And this said simply on the basis of a smile, a wave, and a "hi."
When my friend and I were finished eating, we stood and put on our coats. Seeing we were about to leave, the girl waved again to me and said, with the same radiant smile, "Bye!"
Once again I was romanced."Sweetheart," I said, "Thank you so much for giving me your wonderful smile."
"You're welcome," she said.
"What's your name," I asked, hoping her mother would not object to a strange man speaking to her daughter.
"I'm Lilly," she said looking me straight in the eye.
I thought it interesting that she did not turn to her mother to ask it was okay to talk with someone she didn't know. Apparently she'd simply made up her mind to treat me as a friend.
"How old are you, Lilly?" I asked. "Six, seven, ten … maybe?" I purposely misjudged her age just to see if she'd further respond.
"Nooooo," she laughed. "I'm not ten (the "ten" said emphatically as if she were reprimanding me.). "I'm free" (which, interpreted, meant three).
"Free!" I said. "I really missed it didn't I?"
"Yes, you missed it by a lot," she said.
"You have a magnificent daughter; you must be a great mom," I said turning to Lilly's mother who was obviously delighting in her child's capacity to handle herself so confidently.
"Thank you," she said.
"Bye, Lilly," I said with another wiggling of my fingers.
"Bye," Lilly said again. And my friend and I left the restaurant … reluctantly.
I'm sure you can tell that I had loved this exchange in the restaurant, that it had generated a sense of joy in me. A 73-year-old man and a "free"-year-old girl had connected for a moment. There'd been no discussion about world news, the latest problems at church, or the newest iPad. I have those conversations all the time. No, this was different: just a few seconds of spontaneous, innocent friendliness. The kind of thing you wished you could experience more.
There are those times—often brief and unexpected—when you get a hint of another world where there is unmitigated beauty, love, peace, and joy. My moment with Lilly was one of those times.
But soon, I fear, Lilly will not be so responsive to a stranger.
When Lilly turns 13 (free-teen?), she may come to that restaurant with her friends, and not even notice that an old man sits nearby. And, if that man is smart, he will say nothing, not even "hi." His intentions could be too easily misunderstood.
Should Lilly turn 23 and come into that restaurant, she might say "hi" to an old man but assume that he is too advanced in years to be any kind of a threat. Why, she might even hold the door for him if he's leaving. But, on the other hand, if he's a much younger man, she will become instinctively cautious and take care to send no ambiguous signals. At her age, she knows how quickly things can go wrong.