I picked her up from school and let her choose where we went next. All of the options started with "p" and were nearby. Pinkberry? The park? Panera? She chose the last one and off we went to get a snack.
By now, she's been so many times with me that she recognizes the logo, the earth tones, the awnings, the in-store ads, and probably the smell. She knows what's inside: cookies, muffins, bagels, salads. I know what's inside, too: time together.
We pay for our food, grab a highchair, and find a table. This location is crowded with $2 customers today. There's the handful of retirees who have been here since lunch, sipping coffee (and the free refills) and reading papers, telling stories, and taking things slowly. College students are strewn about, buckling down before finals week with heavy textbooks, $1,000 laptops, and a plastic cup that always has a soft drink in it. Headphones are in, eyes are on the paper until a chat pops up on the screen, and they'll be here until the cafeteria opens in a few hours.
And then there's us. A girl and her dad, ready to eat a muffin together.
For little hands, a muffin this size is a commitment. It's an event. It's not food; it's something to do for a half hour. She grabs and lifts, takes a bite and smiles, pleased with the taste and the texture and the fact that she just did that all by herself.
She then starts directing me, telling me where to put the fork and how to cut the muffin and to get her a cookie, too, and that she needs some water and look at what that woman has and what are those people eating and where is Mommy and look at all the crumbs and it's getting darker outside and she wants another bite and Daddy can't have any and look at the plate and move her cup and school was fun and we'll go home soon.
She does this a lot now, the little general. She orders and tells and says and states and declares and preaches and asks and demands and demands and demands. Trying to make happen something you want to make happen is hard when you're still learning the basic conventions of a spoken language. But despite her persistence and impatience and whines and begging, I listen and I do as I'm told. Because the truth is always scattered around me like college students at Panera:
In a decade or so, I'll need to beg her to go anywhere with me.
And so I take the muffin days now, complete with crumbs and commands, and store them up. I am stocking a pantry of memories that I can draw from moving forward in order to eat well on those days when I embarrass her and those days when she just doesn't feel herself and those days when she wants to be alone and those days when she doesn't like me. I will sit in a chair on those days and remember how my daughter used to eat muffins with two hands and smile and notice everything.
I will use those muffin memories to get me through that decade until she is sitting at some Panera near her campus, trying not to stare and remember as another dad does what his muffin-eating daughter tells him to do.
And then I'll still be there a decade later, perhaps when she and I together eat muffins with her child.
We need the muffins because they're so much more than food. Vacations are more than a trip. The park is more than a playground. And life is better than we realize, caught in that moment between muffin and memory.