17 September 2008

Late Blooms

That stalwart alumna of the fabled Brown Film Society, Holly Sklar, has been in touch recently, pointing me to her own blog, Late-Blooming Mom. (She doesn’t use the hyphen in the title, but being a former editor and grammar instructor, I do.) Blessed with breathtakingly adorable twins in her late 30s, Holly writes with vigor and charm about her experiences. I daresay it was a mistake on my part not to let her write more often for the Film Bulletin, but it’s too late to undo the damage now, except by directing you to her current writing.

I’d be unnerved, embarrassed, and possibly traumatized to come across my own mother’s accounts of my early childhood, but I suspect that Thing 1 and Thing 2 (as Holly has dubbed them for the purposes of the blog) will cope just fine when they’re old enough to read these entries. Yeah, they’ve been a four-fisted handful at times, but Holly’s love for them radiates in every line. Seriously. You may want to adjust the lighting level of your computer screen as you read.

I’m a great connoisseur of other people’s children, which makes up in large measure for my failure to have any of my own. As recently as a few years ago, friends were reminding me that I could adopt, that there’s no reason I couldn’t sire an heir or two even when I’m 70, all terribly encouraging, possibly comforting, and even flattering. They wouldn’t say such things if they didn’t think I’d be a good father, would they? (Unless of course they’re trying to sucker me, as they themselves were suckered.) Meanwhile, I have continued to accumulate godchildren, much as other people collect snowglobes.

If I do say so, I'm a terrific godfather, officially to four kids and unofficially to many more. I picked up two more at Reunion, Max and Julia, though I’m not sure they know yet that I’m part of the family. They met me only for a minute.

My career began unusually. A friend named her firstborn son William. She insisted that she hadn’t named him after me — but we hit it off brilliantly from the start. As William and I sprawled on the floor, surrounded by toys, I looked up at my friend and said, “You know, if he thinks it’s the truth, and I think it’s the truth, it’s the truth. You have no more say in it. He is my namesake.” And I became a godfather.

Through all of my godchildren, I have made astonishing discoveries. For example, it is worth any amount of trouble to make a child laugh. I learned this when I applied the suction cup of a baby toy to my forehead: little William found this hysterically funny. I did it again and again. His peals of laughter were music to me. The hickey on my forehead lasted a week.

Would I do it again today? Try and stop me.

I may have been a kind of toy myself to my godkids, especially when they were small. I would do things that other grownups wouldn’t: get down on the floor, run through the sprinkler, and I don’t believe I ever once refused to give a piggyback ride, sometimes to several kids at once. Surely the two hours, six days a week I spent in the gym were intended primarily to make myself a better godfather.

I held myself to exacting standards of godfatherhood, and still do. I have no intention of being the sort of godfather who sits in the kitchen drinking coffee with the parents and saying, “Go run and play now, dear,” when my godchildren seek my attention. I want to be active, engaged, in every part of the kids’ lives. Except changing diapers. That’s when I hand off to mommy and daddy. It’s simply not part of my job description.

My feelings are crushed when I’m not shown the latest art project. I reproach myself if I lose interest in the umpteenth repetition of a song or a joke, if I drop out of a game or a race, if I leave the playground too soon. I grieve when I miss the school play. Mind you, I don’t spoil my godchildren: I don’t consent to every request, but I do hear them out.

My standards of fatherhood would be even higher, I believe. I would be the person I am as a godfather — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, forevermore. With additional services that I’ve seldom if ever been required to offer the godkids: sage counsel, patient listening, judicious discipline, home-cooked meals. I would even change diapers. I am certain of this.

Yet recently I came to realize that I don't have the energy anymore to scamper after small children. One friend from college, who had her third child only a few years ago, insists that this isn’t a problem, and indeed, she manages beautifully with only minimal scampering. But I couldn’t live up to my own standards if I became a father today. It may be a good thing, after all, that my oldest godchild just started college, and hasn’t asked for a piggyback ride in years.

I often say that having kids is like singing opera: everybody is happier if I let my friends do it. Yet I’m not entirely comfortable with my childlessness — I never have been. At the christening of my Texan namesake, Will slept in my arms, his own tiny arm flung over my shoulder with an almost voluptuous abandon, as my godmother remarked when she saw the pictures. Will’s father wasn’t present for the ceremony, so I stood before the priest. Afterward, an older woman stepped up and said, “I’ve never seen a father and son so devoted to each other.”

It was at once the proudest and the saddest moment of my life.

So I’m grateful to my friends, for letting me be a part of their children’s lives and for enriching my own. I can’t wait to meet Thing 1 and Thing 2, and to make them, if only for a few hours, my godchildren, the shining apples of my loving eye.

NOTE: The photographs are from the film Finding Neverland (U.S. 2004, directed by Marc Forster), which tells of the author J.M. Barrie’s godfatherly relationship with the children of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, and the sources of his play Peter Pan. You’d swear it was the story of my life, though Johnny Depp is arguably better-looking than I.

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