By Tom Cardella
I had unusual godparents. By way of explanation, if you were Catholic, godparents were chosen by your folks at the time of baptism. Godparents were supposed to play a crucial role throughout your life to ensure you remained a person devoted to your faith. The Church sets strict requirements that godparents must meet to be deemed acceptable. People believed if something happened to your mother and father while you were a minor, your godparents would take their place and raise you as a good Catholic. To be chosen as a godparent was considered a great honor.
Normally, people chose their best friends to be godparents. My mother, being the serious-minded person that she was, chose Marie. Throughout her life, Godmother Marie sent me a check for $5 on my birthdays. Even when I was well into my 30s, Godmother Marie was still sending me a $5 check each year. Inflation being what it was, the $5r gift diminished in value through the years, but as my mother reminded me, it was the thought that counted, not the diminishing value of the check.
My father, unlike my mother, was never a churchgoer until he felt mortality closing in on him and faced the reality that his fading level enforced fidelity on him. Dad found religion in his later years. He chose “Mikey the fighter” as my Godfather. How Mikey met the religious requirements is a testament to the fact that the Church in its wisdom used a very loose definition of “practicing Catholic.” I never saw him attend Sunday Mass. He appears to have practiced his religion in absentia.
In retrospect, my father’s choice of Mikey seems bizarre. Apparently, his main qualification for choosing my godfather was boxing ability. My father admired good boxers, perhaps even more so because he was not a good boxer. Despite my father’s strength and bravery, he admitted to me more than once that in his only amateur match, he had been knocked out in the first round. It was unusual for my father to admit any failings — he didn’t have to because my mother considered it her primary duty as his wife to remind him frequently of his flaws.
As my father told the story, he and his friends aspired to be professional boxers the way kids today aspire to the other more highly- regarded professional sports. Many boys of that era decided to begin their careers in what Dad called, “the amateurs.” Unfortunately, Dad’s first amateur match dispelled any notions he might have had of a professional boxing career. As he described it, the bell rang for the first round. He jogged to the center of the ring. And that’s the last thing he remembered until he woke up on the canvas thinking that maybe he should become a plumber. He wound up becoming a decorated member of the Philadelphia police force. Despite the fact that he no longer pursued a professional boxing career, Dad never really gave up his dream. He spent many nights shadow boxing along with televised fights on TV. Dad wisely chose me as his “sparring partner” in my youth. Me he could easily handle. I tell you all of this because it might help you to understand why Dad admired Mikey the fighter. He had quick feet and could take a punch.
Unlike Godmother Marie, Mikey the fighter never sent me a check for my birthdays. Not for $5. No check. No card. Nadda. Mikey was a phantom figure in my life. Mom often reminded Dad that Mikey the fighter was a poor choice as a godfather. And it was hard for my father to argue the point. Mikey never acknowledged me, incredibly, even after he and his wife became our next-door neighbors. I can’t remember ever having exchanged even a “hello” with Mikey on the rare occasions when I saw him leave his house. I prefer to think of Mike as shy rather than uncaring. Mom cut Godfather Mikey no such slack. Her compassion had sharply defined limits.
It’s not as if the situation with Godmother Marie was normal. She and her husband did not speak to each other. They’re communications with each other seemed to have ended with their wedding vows on the altar. Godmother Marie and her husband lived together in the same house, although he was banished to the finished basement. He was a Philadelphia firefighter with, as my mother put it, “hands of gold” (a phrase my mother reserved for a man could do everything from hanging wallpaper to making his own dining room set). He was cordial to us when we visited Godmother Marie, although I noticed he never looked at her. Ever. Mom explained the unusual living arrangements by hinting at serial infidelity on his part. Godmother Marie would never give her husband the satisfaction of moving out of such a nice house. Their marriage seemed to be based on spite. Spite kept them together for more years than many happy marriages could.
If the situation developed where either of my godparents became responsible for my upbringing, I could’ve wound up with Godfather Mikey the fighter who never spoke to me. Or I could have wound up with Godmother Marie in a nicely furnished house where her husband lived silently in the basement.
I don’t think this is the way the Church envisioned the role of godparents.