Family Matters: The Godmother
A lonely girl and a woman yearning for a child in her life form a connection that crosses the boundaries of ethnicity and age.
I wanted a grandchild, craved one as I had craved a lover when I was 18. I yearned for a granddaughter and I got a goddaughter, or, I should say, a goddaughter got me. a Living in rural western Massachusetts, there isn’t much to do outdoors in winter, so my husband ingeniously erected a bird feeder with multiple dining platforms for winter birds. This was fine, but the extravagantly tall, white flagpole (minus the flag) offended my sensibilities. There was enough of a lack of color without that white thing in our yard. And so I set off to buy some colorful Tibetan prayer flags at the home of one of the many Tibetan stonemasons in our neck of the woods.
As I entered Sonam Lama’s apartment, a little girl took one hard look at me and jumped up. I caught her, and she wrapped her legs around my waist, her arms around my neck. I did business with her dad while she was still attached to me, then put her down and kneeled in front of her to see her face. She was beautiful. She was 5.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Genie,” I said.
“Will you call me on the telephone?”
“Okay,” I said.
“665-6113,” she said. “Write it down.”
I called her several days later; that was two years ago.
Oh, the joy of Godmother-hood – it must equal that of grandmother-hood, a state I still greatly wish to achieve, but my daughter has decided against it, and my son, although he has promised to “breed,” as he puts it, has been taking his time.
Weekly, I pick Emma up after school and take her to dance class or gymnastics and, now, karate. Sleepovers during school vacations and the summer. When I am with her, she is all there is: She is my minute, my hour, my day.
For reasons that remain hazy to me, Emma’s mother is missing from her life. Her father has sole custody. In the car one day I invented a game to help her unloosen the anger she has stored largely because of her mother’s absence.
Once I said, “I doubt it,” in response to one of Emma’s pronouncements, and she asked me what it meant. I explained that it means you really don’t believe it, you doubt it, and so our game was born.
Emma begins: “You are so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so stupid”—the adjectives vary; all are, however, pejorative—“so, so, so, so stupid that trees spit on you and dogs throw rocks at you and people scream when they see you.…”
“I doubt it,” I say, my hands on the steering wheel, Emma buckled up in the seat behind me. Then my turn:
“You are so, so, so, so….”
One day, to my beyond-words pleasure, Emma said, “You are so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so nice that you are the best godmother in the world and the trees bend down to you and the frogs hop for you and the flowers grow for you….”
“I doubt it,” I said.
“No,” Emma stated emphatically, “you have to say I don’t doubt it!”
One day, as I sat beside her reading aloud, she looked at me hard and told me I have a pointy nose. (Tibetans have flat noses.) Then, one day, Emma asked me what I am.
“I am American,” I answered.
“I’m American, too,” she said.
“Yes, you are a Tibetan American and I am a Jewish American.”
She did not miss a beat. “Then,” she said, “I’m a Jewish Tibetan American.”
“Cool,” I said.
Frequently, we eat at Friendly’s restaurabt halfway between her home and mine. We always sit beside each other on one side of a booth. Before we begin our meal, we have a ritual: We hold hands, and I whisper a berakha for the food in her ear. Then she whispers as fast as she can, ohm mani padme hum, ohm mani padme hum, ohn mani padme hum—a Tibetan prayer.
Recently, she asked me to help her say the Hebrew words of the berakha, and she got stuck on the guttural khaf. Our faces about three inches apart, she carefully watched my lips and tried. At last she got the sound, albeit rather emphatically.
“Try to make it softer,” I said (it is hard for Emma to do anything softly, but she tried). “That’s better,” I said, “that’s good.”
“Now you have to try the Tibetan prayer.”
“Okay,” I said, and I watched her lips move, listened carefully and stumbled over the strange rivers of a’s and r’s until I said a semblance of her prayer.
After her Friendly’s kid meal comes dessert, a sundae. Emma loves the hot fudge and the chocolate ice cream. She loves the whole thing so much that she almost swallows the metal dish in which it comes. I tolerate what Westerners would perhaps consider less than proper manners because the Tibetans I’ve observed don’t dine as daintily as we do; for the most part, they sit on rugs on the floor and eat very quickly. But when her whole face is in the dish after she has lifted and licked it and gotten every bit her tongue can reach and her cheeks and nose are stained with chocolate, I say, “Emma, that’s it.”
“Just a little more?” she asks, “please.”
“That’s it, put down the dish right now.”
“Okay,” she says slowly, still licking the almost invisible residue. “Okay,” and she submits to the wet napkin I carefully wipe across her face.
Our relationship, out of the blue, feels ordained, cosmic— bashert.
She is a tough kid—her home life is far less structured than that of most children her age, and she is forced to span two cultures. She still struggles to understand, to live with, her school life and me and my culture. She is bossy and loud and too smart, but however she is, I am in it for the long haul, though she sometimes worries about my age, saying, “I wish you were 20.” (I am 60.) “I wish you were my mom,” she has exclaimed from time to time.
Recently, during one of her sleepovers, she gave me a prankster look over the dining room table strewn with papers and magic markers. “Genie,” she said, “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I don’t like you.”
“Oh?” I said.
“No, I don’t like you, I love you,” she said with a sky-wide smile.
I do what I can for this little girl, although it often does not seem enough. Often, I’m bemused, frustrated, plain annoyed by her behavior and her endless questions:
Why do I have to wear socks?
Can I sit in the front?
Why is your skin so crinkly?
Will you come to the bathroom with me?
Can you buy me…buy me…?
How old are you really?
How does a baby come out?
Can I tell you something?
Can I have more chocolate milk?
I keep on, and I will for as long as I can. Sometimes I come home from our visits and want to scream. She has demanded too much, pushed me too hard, confused and driven me crazy with her antics. Her teachers, my friends and husband all tell me that I have no idea how important I am to Emma, how much I mean in her life.
There is a Jewish saying that if you save one life, you save the world. I remind myself of this when my standin- forever godchild makes me want to just give up.
Yet under all the complexity lies the deep primal love of an older person for a child. I get as much as I give. And I don’t like my Emma, I love her.
I don’t doubt it.