I think every child needs someone in their life who thinks they are the cat’s pajamas — someone who, unlike their parents, is not obligated to love them.
I think God made grandparents for just this reason. I grew up in an Italian neighborhood where Nana or Papa lived nearby and were always around to dote effusively on their grandkids. This became my ideal of what grandparents should be like.
My own grandma, my only living grandparent, lived less than a mile away, yet we seldom saw her. When we did, her eyes did not sparkle and her face did not light up in the way the Italian grandma’s did for their grandchildren. There were no hugs or even feigned interest on her part. It was clear to me from an early age, that she saw me as a nuisance, a gnat, a bother. I spent the majority of my growing up years trying to win her friendship and wondering what it was about me that she found so un-loveable.
As an adult, I’ve come to realize that it was her own inability to love and not mine to be loved. I think I know why she was the way she was, but it didn’t change things for me. She lived independently into her mid-90s neither giving nor finding joy in her children or grandchildren. And that is life’s ultimate tragedy – to live so long with so little joy.
Nonetheless, God did not leave me wanting.
There are plenty of things about which to criticize the Catholics, but Godparents is not one of them. It’s one of the best ideas they’ve come up with which kind of makes up for Lent. The couple that my parents chose as my Godparents lived right across the street. It is my belief that that decision was providential, mapped out in the heavens before I was even born.
With no children of their own, John and Rose lavished the full force of unrequited parenthood upon me and I gladly and gratefully soaked it up. They took me on camping and fishing trips, to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, they bought me the Chrissy doll I wanted so badly for Christmas that my own parents couldn’t afford, they taught me how to set a table, how to scramble eggs, how to pick out oranges at the store and so much more. I had my own room in their house and I stayed there often. They couldn’t have loved me more if I were their own. They called me Cupcake.
I remember many times getting out of my bed at their house early in the morning and creeping past their room on my way to the kitchen and seeing my Godmother down on her knees, with her rosary, praying beside her bed. I didn’t know at the time how many of those prayers were for me. Once when I visited her in the nursing home, she told me how she prayed for me when I was little and I flashed upon her kneeling beside her bed. She told me that when I was very small and very sick, that she and John were so worried that they would lose me and her eyes filled with tears, even after all these years. And it was then, at that moment, that I finally understood something of how deeply I was loved by this woman.
Rose and John are both gone, many years now, but they left me with a treasure trove of memories and stories to see me through my life. The imprimatur of their love for me is forever upon my heart – a love bound not by genetics but by something that has no description. They never let me forget that they thought I was the cat’s pajamas. They loved me and they didn’t have to. And in the shaping of my life, it has made all the difference.