In the earliest photo of us, I am concealed behind the bloom of Wren’s baptismal gown while they are ruby-faced, captured mid-scream. It’s an inauspicious snapshot of the relationship to follow. But leap-frog four years. I wait outside Wren’s preschool to pick them up. They’re travelling home with me and godfather Gilberto, my then husband, for their first sleepover. Wren spots me, hunches their shoulders and grins the way they might look at a baby bird. They’re so elated they can’t open their backpack to collect worksheets, and I am captivated by this effusive godchild with a natural white streak in their chestnut hair.
Fog fades the landscape on the coast-bound highway, but not Wren’s bravery. “I can’t believe we can have two sleepovers!” they gush, rifling through the glove box. They proffer gifts to me: an old receipt, a comb. When they find a hawk feather in the side pocket of the truck, they lay it on my lap and Gil reaches from the back to admire it. “Give that back to Aunt Tricia,” Wren instructs matter-of-factly.
“Oh,” he pines, stroking the feather, “I would love to have a feather like this.”
“Well, get one from a bird!” they quip. It is this unvarnished persona that charms me, this child, 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 Wren rough on the edges, they’re a head taller than their classmates, a wearer of size 12 shoes at the age of four. They don’t walk through the world so much as careen. And they’re prone to the absurd. They recently asked their mother: “What is my husband named? Is it Aunt Tricia?”
I am new to this godparenting. For those likewise unfamiliar: a godparent is traditionally a person who sponsors a child’s baptism and makes a profession of faith, agreeing to instruct the child in religion. More recently, godparenting is popular with non-religious parents who view the godparent as a child’s life-long friend and supporter. But whether secular or religious values motivate the relationship, I’m convinced it’s ingenious. It gives carefully selected individuals permission to form abiding, close relationships with godchildren without 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 Wren, we happened to attend a boy’s presentation. The three-year-old looked swanky in his black suit and 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 read bell hooks as she extolled the virtue of raising children in extended familial groups. The repetition of the message reinforced the ideal in my mind. Most parents do want support in raising children, and some people truly want to help. But in a milieu 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?
Godparenting is one way.
Close to home we stop at our favorite wintertime farm stand. As I pilfer bills from my wallet, I hand two to Wren, who teeters with enthusiasm. They choose a bundle of carrots. These are my carrots, they’re wont to explain, and I tell them they came from the field just over there, pointing across the street. On the way home, they eat three, and despite their original intention, share. “Thank you for letting me buy this stuff,” they say. “It’s because you love me.”
At dinner, they look at the carved cross hanging on our wall and explain to me that “God died on a cross.” I find this sloppy—even for a four year old. “Well, Jesus died on a cross,” I tell them. “But God didn’t die on a cross.” They look at me, then back up at the wall, and I can almost hear the buzzing of their brain like the crisp ticks of old computers. I don’t say more. But next time I’ll tell them that God is the eternal Spirit in Jesus, as well as in them, and that God never dies. Shortly after arriving at our house, Wren asks Gilberto to remove a large hand-painted Dia de los Muertos mask that hangs above our door. It disturbs them. Besides, they explain (as if we’re thick-headed), “it isn’t even Halloween.” Later that day they notice skeletons again, this time the colorfully costumed variety on a guest-room pillow. I explain the skeletons are a way to remember loved ones who’ve died, to imagine them celebrating after they’ve left this life.
Wren asks us to place the mask back on the wall.
During Wren’s visit, Gilberto instructs them in building fires, and by the end of their visit they’re feeding the woodstove with utmost care. They also help him peel boiled eggs—dozens of them since, as it turns out, they consume eggs like a ravenous coyote, subsequently passing gas with glee (“that’s from the eggs,” they say each time)—and help him tidy after dinner.
As I read bedtime stories, Wren leans and rests their head on my shoulder. I kiss the musty filigree of their 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—the magic of godparenting. I have several nieces and nephews, and small friends who express appreciation, but it is nothing like the familiar bond between a parent and child, between a grandparent and child. When Wren invites me to hold them 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 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 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. I couldn’t be committed to more than one godchild, and I take the commitment seriously.
As a kid, 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 a godmother during bouts of wandering, times when my curiosity was too scary for my mom, or when we didn’t know how to be close. For most of her youth, my own daughter had countless relatives nearby—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 recommend new parents consider godparents, or a near equivalent. This advice comes not from me, the godmother, but from the sixteen-year-old me who could have used one.
Now thirteen, Wren is an artistic and science-minded force to be reckoned with. They just secured a role in the first play for which they auditioned and are building community in theatre. Our relationship is close. It is a stunning gift—for both of us.
Ah, this godparenting.