In the earliest photo of us, I am concealed behind the bloom of Luci’s baptismal gown while she is ruby-faced, captured mid-scream. It’s an inauspicious snapshot of the relationship to follow.
But leap-frog four years. I wait outside Luci’s preschool classroom to show my ID to her teacher so I can pick her up. She’s travelling home with me and Godfather Gil, my [then] husband, for her first sleepover. Luci spots me and hunches her shoulders as her face bursts with a grin, the way a child might look while admiring a baby bird. She’s so elated she can barely fetch her backpack to collect worksheets from the day. “That’s Aunt Tricia,” she gushes to her classmates like I’m not only the Godmother, but God. I am beside myself with love for this effusive girl with cheeks round and sweet as meringue and a natural streak of blond in her sable brown hair. Gil and I clutch her hands as we walk to our truck noticing the stares we garnish from parents, and strap her into a booster seat like we’re taking home the grand prize. Everyone must be jealous.
We head to the diner-slash-ice cream parlor where she and Gil take turns sampling flavors, Luci’s choice a display of so many artificial colors I shield my eyes, until I see her delight upon eating it. She decides to eat her hot dog sans bun, to eat ranch dressing from the tips of her fingers—forget the fries, expressing her autonomy with food, as she does in most matters.
Filled, if not nourished, we commence the two-hour drive home. Fog fades the landscape on the coast-bound highway, but not the ebullience of our brave little Goddaughter. “I can’t believe we can have two sleepovers!” she shares, entertaining herself by rifling through the glove box. She proffers gifts to me: an old gas station receipt, a complementary comb embossed with gold lettering. When she finds a hawk feather in the side pocket of the truck, she lays it on my lap and Gil reaches from the back to admire it.
“Give that back to Aunt Tricia,” she instructs matter-of-factly. She explains it’s my present.
“Oh,” he pines, stroking the feather’s edge, “I would love to have a feather like this.”
“Yeah well,” she says, “get one from a bird!”
Gil and I meet smiles in the rearview mirror. It is this refreshingly unvarnished persona that charms us, a four-year-old refraction of my late grandmother—a woman so phlegmatic, unembellished, and bittersweet she was barely fit for polite society.
Not only is Luci rough on the edges, she’s a head taller than her classmates, a wearer of size 12 shoes at the age of four. She careens through the world like a clumsy giant. And she’s prone to the absurd, the mischievous. She recently asked her mother: “What is my husband named? Is it Aunt Tricia?” To this, her older brother stated, “No, your husband will be Saul [Luci’s preschool crush].”
“No,” Luci responded, “he is my boyfriend. Teacher said ‘no boyfriends’. But I asked him quietly, and he said yes!”
Can’t helping thinking Luci will need Godparents.
We’re happy to oblige. Yet where Gil is Godfather three times over, I am new to the business. For those likewise unfamiliar: a Godparent is traditionally a person who sponsors a child’s baptism, and who makes a Profession of Faith, agreeing to instruct the child in religion. More recently, Godparenting is popular with non-religious parents, who view Godparents as life-long friends and supporters of a child. But whether secular or religious values motivate the institution, I’m convinced it’s ingenious. It gives carefully selected individuals permission to have abiding, close relationships with Godchildren without worry of “playing favorites” among siblings. It confers particular responsibility on Godparents to assist children in developing toward wholeness. And it not only undergirds the child, it can allow non-parents to experience the joys of “parenting”. In fact, the Chinese equivalent of Godparenting is designed specifically to fulfill this need for childless adults.
Just two days before fetching Luci, we happened to attend a boy’s presentation. The three-year-old looked swanky in his black suit and stiff white lapel, the dimly lit sanctuary reflected in his patent-leather shoes. Our small community stood with the parents and recited a commitment to help raise the boy. But though I mouthed the words, I was skeptical. Do faith communities fulfill this commitment better than anyone else? Later that night, in the book I lifted from my bedside, I happened to read bell hooks as she extolled the virtue of raising children in extended families or familial groups. The repetition of the message reinforced the ideal in my mind. Most parents do want support in raising children, and some people actually want to help. But in a culture of individualism, it is tricky to live out the ideal. How do we help parents raise children without horning in on the nuclear family, which often feels impenetrable?
I’m starting to think Godparenting makes a way.
Close to home we stop at our favorite wintertime farm stand. As I pilfer dollar bills from my wallet, I hand two to Luci, who teeters with enthusiasm. She chooses a bundle of carrots. These are my carrots, she’s wont to explain, and I tell her they came from the field just over there, pointing across the street. On the way home, she eats three, and despite her original intention, shares them. “Thank you for letting me buy this stuff,” she says. A moment later adding: “It’s because you love me.” Which, of course, I do.
I don’t strive to be educative with Luci, but I snatch opportunities. At dinner, she looks at the carved Mexican cross hanging on our wall and explains that “God died on a cross.” As a PhD in New Testament, I find this sloppy—even for a four year old. “Well, Jesus died on a cross,” I tell her. “But God didn’t die on a cross.” She looks at me, then back up at the wall, and I can almost hear the calculations in her mind, like the crisp ticks of old computers. I don’t say more. But what I’ll tell her next time is that God is the eternal spirit in Jesus, as well as the eternal spirit in her, and that God never dies.
Shortly after arriving at our house, Luci asks Gil to remove a large handpainted Dia de los Muertos mask that hangs above our door. It disturbs her. Besides, she explains (as if we’re slow on the obvious), it isn’t even Halloween. Later that day she notices skeletons again, this time the colorfully costumed variety on her guest-room pillows. I explain that, in Mexico, the skeletons are a way to remember loved ones who’ve died, to imagine them having fun after they’ve left this life. Luci decides this is nifty. She asks us to hang the mask back on the wall.
Gil, for his part, wrests educational moments as well. He instructs Luci in building fires, and by the end of her visit she’s opening the woodstove door to feed the fire with utmost care. She helps him peel boiled eggs—dozens of them since, as it turns out, she consumes eggs like a ravenous coyote, subsequently passing gas with glee (“that’s from the eggs,” she says each time)—and helps him tidy up after dinner. He explains recycling to her so she’s filled with optimism with every toss of a tin can.
Before bed, Luci asks for a movie. I put on the Muppets and take my place beside her. Luci shimmies up next to me and lifts my arms, one and then the other, wrapping them around her. The next day, as we drive to visit a horse, she leans and rests her head on my shoulder. I kiss the musty filigree of her hair. It feels like a return. Like I have warped back to the time when I had a child warm beside me, reaching for me, spilling over with affection.
Rare it is to return, and a privilege. That is the magic of Godparenting. I have several nieces and nephews and small friends who express love and appreciation. They have learned affection. But it is nothing like the familiar bond between a parent and child, between a grandparent and child. When Luci invites me to hold her like I once held my own daughter, I am reminded of that bond. People in our culture have pets to replace the effortless tenderness of children (my cat stands in), or they use other stand-ins—maybe sports, or long hugs with friends. Yet we miss holding the hand of a child. We miss having our hand held.
I quickly establish a house rule for Luci: I am allowed to read bedtime stories. This happens the first evening when I tell her it’s time for stories and she politely refuses. “No thank you,” she says. Thus—my rule. The first night, I get through Madeline’s Christmas and a whimsical I, Spy. But the next night, Luci asks for a third book—one about Jane Goodall as a girl that is sublime and almost spiritual. When I finish, she wants it again. Victory!
I hear that in some cultures, Godparenting runs amok. People are asked to Godparent too many children, thus diluting the relationship. It becomes symbolic and superficial, often aimed at gaining monetary assistance for the child, and Godparents barely know their Godkids. I sympathize. If asked to Godparent another child, I would probably say no, at least until Luci is grown. I take the commitment too seriously and want to do my best by her. I think every kid should have a committed Godparent.
As a child, I grew up far from extended family. Not only did I not have Godparents, I barely knew my aunts and uncles. In lieu of a close extended family, I could have used the affection and mentorship of Godparents during bouts of wandering, times when my curiosity was too scary for my parents, or when I didn’t know how to be close to them and authentically myself. For most of her youth, my own daughter had countless relatives nearby. She was like a child in a mountain village of Bhutan. I saw what a difference this made for her and her sense of self-love. Most children don’t have this, so I advise new parents to use Godparents. This advice comes not from me, the green as grass Godmother with brilliant wisdom to purvey, but from the fourteen-year-old me who could have used one.