Sometimes the closest of family can come from unrelated strangers. My godparents are the first example of this phenomenon in my life. Many years before I was born, my parents needed to find another place to live. They rented, as a young married couple, a small apartment in the home of an older couple with a blind teenage son. They lived there for most of the first seven years of their marriage. Once my older brother was born, they needed more room, plus my mother was a beautician and was also looking for space to relocate her beauty shop. Dad and Mom had to stay in the old neighborhood because my mother’s family was all there and so were both of their livelihoods. They couldn’t afford a car. It was wartime and they relied on public transportation, so prospects were limited. Just how they happened upon the new address, I never learned.
The house was a two-family. A Polish immigrant woman, a widow in her forties, was renting out the downstairs. It was her only source of income. She had two teenage children, a son, her oldest and a daughter a few years younger. The three of them lived upstairs. What should have been the front parlor and dining room of the old house downstairs became my mother’s Beauty Shoppe and they (Dad, Mom and older brother) lived in the back three rooms. Their new landlady spoke very little English, so the kids were more than happy to act as go betweens for their new tenants and very quickly bonded with my folks. It was an instant good fit. My parents called their landlady “Auntie” and they became part of each others’ extended families. They became so close in fact, that when I was born, my parents chose the kids who were now 21 and 18, to be my godparents. I learned years later as an adult, that this did not sit well with many members of our family, who resented being passed over for these Polish usurpers.
We moved away when I was just a few months old, when my paternal grandfather decided my parents should own a small house of their own (near his daughters) and he helped with the financing for them. It was a huge move and a very painful one, not only because they were leaving the home they shared with their surrogate family, but because my mother was forced to give up her business, and a very good, steady income. We would also be leaving behind my mother’s family and strong, comfortable ties with the Slovenian-American community that Mom had grown up in and the only life she had ever known. There was nothing in this new section of Cleveland’s westside where we were moving save for new, two-bedroom wooden bungalows, muddy streets and my father’s three weird sisters and their families.
Luckily we were able to maintain our strong family bonds. We would go to my mother’s parents house every Sunday of my life – Gramma and Grampa’s. It was a routine only broken for major blizzards and illnesses and when we celebrated birthdays at our own homes, where the whole family would meet at the birthday person’s house. And any time we celebrated one of our birthdays, my godparents and their families would be included in the celebration. We often visited the godparents after our regular grandparents visit. For the longest time, I never knew that these people weren’t related to me the same as my aunts and uncles and cousins. The only difference I could detect was that I called them by their first names. And by far, my Godfather Wally was truly my favorite relative in the whole wide world.
Wally was young and good-looking and very funny, constantly cracking jokes and smiling and laughing. He always treated me like a person, not a little kid, as most adults and all my other relatives did. He would greet me with “hello godson”, which made him special, because only he could use that name for me. I loved my godmother, but not like I loved Wally. He had gotten married the summer before my fifth birthday. I liked his wife, because she was young and pretty and I wanted him to have a pretty wife – they went together nicely, He always gave me a big, warm hug, and never minded when I crawled up into his lap. He let me “sneak” sips out of his beer can when no one was looking. If I could have chosen a dad, my choice would have been Wally. My own father had mammoth problems that prevented him from being much of a person let alone a parent. He suffered from severe depression, which no one knew about until I was older. He and my mother had a volatile relationship and he hated having to take on the role of family provider. In other words, he didn’t like to go to work. Dad was thirty-five when I was born, and a very old and tired thirty-five at that. I remember him through most of my early childhood only as distant and depressed. Without comprehending it at the time, I was resenting this old man who purported to be my father. I found myself fantasizing, whenever I saw a young, vibrant daddy somewhere interacting with his kids, that he was my daddy too. Therefore Wally was a flesh and blood candidate for father and I claimed him in my heart as mine alone.
So we come to that Sunday in December when we were celebrating my fifth birthday. My mother seemed to have made a very big deal about it, me turning five. We were having the party in our basement “rec” room, because there wasn’t enough room upstairs in our tiny house. Wally and his new wife and my godmother with her husband and daughter were the first to arrive. Wally put a large box, wonderfully wrapped with bright-colored paper and ribbons on the big table which held my birthday cake. He picked me up and sat me next to the box and helped me to begin opening my present. Normally I wasn’t too excited about birthday gifts, because even as a kid they were always clothes. We were awfully poor at the time, so birthdays were when we got new things to wear for the coming year. I got the feeling this box was not shirts and pants. Wally seemed too excited for it to be anything but wonderfully special and even my parents appeared to know what was inside this box. I remember everyone staring at me, waiting to see my reaction. I couldn’t read what the heavy cardboard box said, and there weren’t any pictures which might have given me a clue.
Wally opened the carton and pulled out what looked like a small blue suitcase with a blue plastic handle. He showed me how to pull down the large brass clasp to open the lid of the case. It was a record player. It was my own record player. My parents had an ancient gramophone from the early 1930s that had been broken for years. This one was new and it was mine. There were about a dozen small brightly colored plastic records stored inside – 78 rpms of children’s nursery rhymes and songs. Wally plugged it in while my godmother put on a red plastic record. Wally guided my hand to show me how to carefully place the needle’s arm onto the record. I remember hearing a lady begin singing “Sing a Song of Sixpence”. I watched the record go round and round, still trying to take it all in, that this was MY gift from these wonderful people. I was beyond happy. I didn’t know how I was feeling, but I had never been that thrilled in all my five years. Looking up at the faces of my entire family staring at me, waiting for a reaction, I felt my face beginning to get wet. “Why are you crying” my mother asked me? “Tell your godparents thank you”.
Now I was totally confused because I was so very happy receiving this incredible gift, yet I felt the tears that before had always come when either I’d hurt myself, or was scared, or so angry I couldn’t find the words to speak. Again I found myself speechless, but because I could not fathom tears and happiness coming at the same time. It made no sense and the combined emotions almost frightened me. “I’m happy, but I’m crying”, was all I could get out though the tears, and Wally just leaned in and squeezed me in his embrace. It didn’t matter, I thought, he understood it was the only thank you I could get out. What a day – what a great dad.
A few years later Wally and his wife had a son. I found myself becoming jealous, since he now had his own little boy. The kid was kind of a brat, but as he grew, my jealousy subsided, because Wally was not the super-dad I had imagined him to be. Wally had to be the disciplinarian and he really wasn’t nearly as tender and playful as he had been with me. And I never once saw him let his son sneak a sip from his can of beer. It reinforced my feelings about our special relationship and even as a teenager, he was still at the top of my list of favorites. All these years later, when grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and even some cousins have passed away, Wally is still there in Cleveland. I just talked to him a month ago; he’s battling some cancerous lung tumors at eighty-something years old. He’s the great-grandfather of two little girls, and told me they are the only reason he even consented to undergo radiation treatment. He is one of the last people on this earth who knows me since I was a baby – when I was his little godson. Of course he would keep ahold of his special place in my heart.