This weekend was my nephew’s third birthday party. I’m still unsure how to feel about being an uncle since I’m not really that excited about kids. Even as a child, I had no idea what to do with other kids, especially other boys, whose interest in intellectual pursuits was about as pronounced as their desire to have teeth pulled.
(Granted, this was in central Kansas in the 1990s, where my family was until we moved to Minnesota when I was 10 years old.)
At the recommendation of a friend, I paid a visit to Creative Kidstuff in Saint Paul. At age three, most kids have an attention span limited to anything colorful or dynamic. My nephew likes running around, being active, and doing things with his hands, and my sister informed me that he does like crafts, but also likes books.
After being pointed in the direction where I’d likely find presents for active, creative three-year-olds, I spoke with an adorable young guy who gave me several ideas for things that would be age-appropriate, aid in tactile development and hand-eye coordination, and fun. (I tried not to think about all the fun things I wanted to do with him, but that’s another story.) One was a paper bag hand puppet craft kit that I thought both my nephew and his mom would have fun with.
Crafty, fun present – check!
Then it was over to the book section where I saw a collection of the Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit stories. These were stories that my sisters and I grew up reading and hearing, and I especially remember the vivid illustrations. It was one of the first books I can remember reading out loud by sounding out the syllables, much like the scene in the play Wit where a young Vivian makes the association between the word “soporific” and the picture of the sleepy bunny.
Then I saw another book that also occupied many happy hours of my childhood – Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. My parents had a copy from what must’ve been the 1950s that looked very much like this one. As I leafed through the book, memories came flooding back, of poems like “The Land of Counterpane” and “Foreign Lands.”
“Up into the cherry tree
Who should climb but little me?
I held the trunk with both my hands
And looked abroad on foreign lands.”
I had the thought that even if he didn’t appreciate books as presents now, he might someday find himself in search of a present for his own nephew, and nearly break down in tears while remembering the stories he read as a child. And those books will be around long after I’m gone, which is more than can be said for the flashy toy cars and games other people gave him. Toys are played with and forgotten. Books endure.
So I may not be the “fun” uncle who plays jokes and steals noses, but I can be the uncle who takes an interest in my nephew’s intellectual development. And for whatever the reason, my sister tells me that he was asking if I was going to come to the party. So apparently I’ve done enough to warrant being memorable!
I was surprised to see that a classmate of mine from college who had roomed with my sister years ago was also there. We’d fallen out of touch over the years as we graduated, and even before as we went our separate educational ways – me on the music performance track, she on music education. We were close our first three years of college, having most of our core music classes together, but she and the other music education majors had an extra year of courses to complete so I didn’t see much of her or them after junior year.
We chatted for a little bit, and of course one of the first questions she asked was whether I was doing much composition! I always feel guilty when saying no, that I’m squandering the talent that I invested so many years in developing, or that I’m not living up to my potential or expectations that everyone had for me.
In an unexpected turn, she disclosed that the previous year she and her (smoking hot) husband (who was swimming just outside the party room and walking around shirtless and in swim trunks, showing off his washboard abs and sexy pecs) had lost a child due to a rare genetic disorder. They’d been advised that the child likely wouldn’t survive, and that if he did it would be with significant disability, but they brought him to full term anyway, like the Evangelicals they are.
Even though the baby lived for only five minutes after being born, she talked about the peace she was able to find in God, in her church, and “in the Word.”
Given how long it’s been since we last spoke, I’m not sure if she knew that she was talking to an atheist, but in a moment where a mother was describing her experience of losing a child, it didn’t seem appropriate to bring up the fact I don’t believe in God anymore. I’m glad that she as able to find comfort and solace in her religious beliefs, but it’s one of those moments as an atheist when you realize how much privilege Christians still enjoy in this society.
Of course, my atheism isn’t really that big of a deal in my own life. Frankly, I don’t identify as an atheist except when dealing with fundamentalists pushing their Christofascist agenda on the rest of the population. I don’t hide the fact that I don’t believe in God, but there are more important things to care about – guys, music, literature, philanthropy, current events, friends, science, etc.
I do wish, however, that I could bring up my non-belief with old friends without being interrogated and politely judged. It is a significant life event, after all…