Adventures of a wary godmother
I thought 4-year-old Grace would be thrilled to have a godmother. But it wasn’t that easy…
By Kim Camlet
I suppose I should’ve expected the stunned expression that came across my goddaughter’s face when I told her the news. But I definitely wasn’t expecting that she would flee across the room and dive for cover in Grandma’s lap. In hindsight, I blame the timing of when I told her I was her godmother. That, and Cinderella.
Like most 4-year-olds, my goddaughter, Grace, is a princess aficionado. Although English is her second language (her family is Chinese), Grace can articulate with astonishing proficiency exactly why she needs whatever princess-emblazoned product she sees whenever we go someplace, and Cinderella is, by far, her favorite.
I reasoned that Grace’s extensive knowledge of Cinderella included the concept of a godmother figure, thus ensuring she’d had some idea of what I’d be talking about when I told her I was her godmother. I thought this happy, familiar concrete reference would allow Grace to easily grasp the concept, no Chinese translation necessary.
My family tree sprouted a Chinese branch a few years ago when my mom joined the Literacy Volunteers of Eastern Connecticut and was assigned to a nice couple from China. When they realized she went to church, they asked to join her and thus formed our close family bond. When they were expecting their first child, they asked her to be the American grandma and choose their daughter’s name. They also wanted their baby girl baptized, so they asked me to be the godmother.
I was touched to be chosen for such a role, even though I secretly thought I was given the title as a way to bestow more honor upon my mom (teachers are revered in China). In a way, that took some pressure off: Grace’s parents had no clear expectations of me, and I didn’t have to worry about accidentally contradicting something her parents told her about Jesus. But I also felt like Grace’s entire Catholic foundation would be in my hands. That was why I wanted Grace to know she had a godmother and begin conversations with her about God, where He lives, how many toes He has, and all those other things kids want to know.
I also thought Grace wanted to know what I was. About two years ago she deduced that she had a mama, a baba (Chinese for “daddy”), a grandma (my mom), and a dee-dee (“baby brother”). She noticed lots of families had one or more of these components, but none of them had a “Kim” (me). This puzzled her.
It finally occurred to me that up until Grace’s light-speed retreat, she had probably concluded that a “Kim” was a giant 4-year-old. Who else would encourage a ridiculously unbalanced ratio of sprinkles to cookie dough, or understand the unrivaled appeal of stickers? I think when I told her I was her godmother, I stopped being her oversized counterpart and became a wand-wielding authority figure. In my first tentative steps taking on the role of godmother, I’d turned myself into the wicked stepmother, evil queen, and every other villainess rolled into one. Great.
Maybe the best approach with Grace, I thought, would be to continue being her personal, giant 4-year-old, not her godmother, and try to dispense some Catholic wisdom from time to time. She’d be Calvin and I’d be Hobbes, discussing the mysteries of God, life, and the universe as our toboggan plummeted down icy hills in the backyard. So how was I to proceed?
“The Cinderella Incident” occurred in October. That meant I had the entire Advent and Christmas season to gently introduce Grace to the concept of God and Jesus.
Because Grace began school this past fall, she’d become very well-informed about Santa Claus (although when told she’d be writing him a letter, she decided after lengthy contemplation that she would write him the letter “P”). Strangely, I found it easier to answers her questions about Santa than to explain who Jesus was and why He was born. I finally decided to use her tiny pet turtle, “Turl,” in a parable: Turl forgot how to eat and was starving until a very kind turtle visited him, taught him how to eat again, and gave him so much food that Turl was never hungry again.
When I tried telling Grace my story, I only got out a couple of sentences before Grace began explaining how Turl’s eating habits invalidated my basic premise, and I couldn’t steer her back to my story. OK, new game plan.
The next week I helped my mom decorate her house for Christmas, and we left a few decorations for Grace to put up. The following Sunday, Grace hung all of her ornaments on the bottom quarter of the tree, front and center. She was just tall enough to hang the stockings. She made very sure the animatronic caroling penguins were vocally prepared for the season by frequently launching them into song with their tempting red “play” button. But what fascinated her most was a nativity set.
My mom has several nativity sets, and this particular one was unbreakable. The plump little fabric people were draped in vibrant, sewn-on clothes, and their soft storage box opened into a stable. Grace excitedly began arranging the little people and animals as her aesthetic vision dictated. As the scene unfolded, donkey perched on the roof (if reindeer can fly, why not?), I began telling her who the different characters were. She had no memory of them from last year when she helped decorate, so she liked learning who was who. She asked questions and I answered them the best I could — Shepherds take care of sheep; Joseph was a carpenter. That means he made things out of wood. Mary wasn’t a carpenter. She took care of the house and cooking and laundry. Um, I think houses were made out of clay bricks back then… Yes, sort of like the three little pigs….
It took some convincing, but she finally agreed to tuck baby Jesus out of sight because He hadn’t been born yet and it would ruin Mary and Joseph’s surprise if they saw Him before his birthday.
When I explained that the Wise Men would join the scene only after Jesus was born, Grace came up with an alternative to hiding them. She scooped up the three squishy little Wise Men and their camel and carried them across the living room to the credenza. She arranged them there, ready to set off on their long, perilous journey across the living room.
For the next four Sundays, Grace conscientiously moved this little caravan closer to the nativity: credenza, windowsill, chair, stereo, cable box. All this activity occurred when I wasn’t in the room, so finding the Wise Men and their dauntless camel sometimes became a game.
I was pleased that she remembered who the characters were and made a point of participating in the nativity scene. I think having characters that she could see and touch made their stories easier to grasp, and a foundation for faith was being created. I didn’t expect her to want to start telling me who the characters were, but since she seemed to enjoy explaining who they were, I asked her to teach me, and she was happy to oblige.
By not revisiting my official title and taking on its mantle, I (without traumatizing her again, my resolute goal) could share my knowledge of Catholicism on Grace’s terms. We’d slowly delve into concepts as she was able to grasp them, and that would give me more time to become a student myself. Practicing faith is a lifelong journey, after all.
When Grace helped me glue together a broken angel figurine, for instance, I explained to her that angels help people and live in heaven. She surprised me by asking, “With Jesus?” She was starting to connect the dots.
After the holidays Grace and I continued our Sunday adventures at Grandma’s, but with a few more Catholic traditions added when they fit the routine. For example, every time we ate a snack, we asked God to bless our food and everyone we love. We’re still trying to teach her how to make the Sign of the Cross, but right now her motions look more like a third-base coach signaling the batter to bunt. However, Grace knows to clasp her hands together, and she’s vigilant about keeping them that way for the duration of the prayer. When someone we know is sick, we go to church to light a candle and pray.
With Easter approaching, clucking rabbits selling chocolate eggs seem to be everywhere, but Jesus is absent. I’m hesitant to tell Grace the full story of his Resurrection; I don’t know at what point she can handle hearing about such suffering. It’s still hard to hear as an adult. She hasn’t noticed the crucifix at church, and, fearful of scaring her, I don’t want to point it out.
I still have so many questions about my own faith, never mind about how to teach it to another person. But I doubt that any godparent, however wise, has ever heard the words: “Thank you! I now completely understand everything about God!” I’ve realized that I can only teach Grace what I believe, do the best I can, and pray that God will give me the words I need when Grace is supposed to hear them. And I also realized that I should never, never mix Cinderella with real life.