The Innocent Relationships Between Old Men and Children
We live in a time in which our guards are up. Pedophilia is a horrible crime in which an adult preys on innocent children -- often the children, grandchildren, or other relatives of the perpetrator. There's a reason other criminals look at them with disdain.
I have five children and eight grandchildren. My children are grown (and thus no longer the target of the pedophile). My biggest fears for them are the depredations of all-powerful nanny state. But I worry about someone preying on my grandchildren. In fact, I am so conscious of this problem that I avoid any kind of situation in which my own relations with my grandchildren could be misinterpreted. I suppose all of that is a good thing.
But I believe we've lost something. Let me give you an example from when I was a kid. I grew up in the smallest of small towns. Our next-door neighbors were an older couple whose children were long gone. I suppose they were in their sixties when I was born (I always thought they must have been in their eighties). My parents loved them and they loved my parents. They babysat me more than once. They weren't actually relatives, but I called him Uncle Bill and her Aunt Mandy. They both loved me, but especially Uncle Bill--it dates me, but I was always known to him as "Sheriff Crockett." Two or three times a week, Uncle Bill would walk in (no knocking was required) while we ate breakfast. He'd sit at the table and mostly talk to me. As I grew older, he would take me fishing. I loved him dearly, and his sudden death from a heart attack when I was in my early teens was the saddest blow of my childhood. It was a pure relationship between an old man and a young boy.
I was reminded of this last night as I read Ian Ker's magnificent biography of G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton and his wife Frances could not have children, but they treated kids with love and respect. When parents would visit the Chestertons and bring their children along, Chesterton spent most of his time in conversation with the kids. He didn't talk down to them, but was genuinely interested in what they had to say.
In the late 1920s, Chesterton (then in his mid-fifties) and Frances went to Rome. At the hotel, they became friends with an English couple traveling with their three small children. Chesterton and Frances invited the kids to visit them. Ker writes:
"When their parents came to collect them, they found Chesterton 'tilted back in a chair, with a large white towel tucked under his collar, being lathered and shaved with a pretended razor by the four-year-old visitor.'"
Now that's my kind of man. Ker documents other incidents that demonstrate Chesterton's and Frances's love for children. By all accounts, Chesterton treated them the way my Uncle Bill treated me.
Two other stories describe pure love and affection between old and young.
We talk a lot here about P. G. Wodehouse (it's either me or Severely Ltd who usually raise the subject). One of Wodehouse's Blandings Castle stories is entitled "Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend." Lord Emsworth is the absent-minded proprietor of Emsworth Castle, which holds an annual "school treat" (think "school carnival") for the local school on the castle grounds. Lord Emsworth hates the school treat because his imperious sister, Constance Keeble, makes him wear a stiff collar and a top hat, despite the warm weather.
On a visit to the village on the day of the school treat to judge flower displays, Emsworth is frightened by a large dog, but is rescued by a small girl named Gladys. They chat and become friends, especially when she reveals that, having been spotted picking flowers in the Castle grounds, she hit Angus McAllister (Lord Emsworth's Scottish gardener) on the shin with a stone to stop him chasing her. Because McAllister always disagrees with whatever Lord Emsworth wants to do, Gladys assumes the status of heroine in Emsworth's eyes.
At the treat, Emsworth flees the tea tent, taking refuge in an old shed. There he finds Gladys, miserable; she has been put there by Constance, for stealing from the tea tent, but Emsworth soon finds she was only getting her own tea, which she was going to give to her young brother Ern, who had previously been barred from the treat for biting Constance on the leg.
Delighted by this, Emsworth takes Gladys into the house, and has Beach the butler provide a hearty tea for him and Gladys. Beach also provides a feast to take back to Ern, and Gladys requests some flowers too. Emsworth hesitates, but cannot refuse her; as she is picking her flowers, McAllister rushes up in a fury, but his master, encouraged by Gladys' hand in his, stands up to the man, putting him in his place.
Constance approaches, demanding Emsworth return to make a speech in the tea tent; he refuses, saying he's going to put on some comfortable clothes and go visit Ern.
The dialogue between Emsworth and Gladys is funny and deeply touching. It's my favorite short story by Wodehouse.
The other story was written by Frank Sullivan, a long-time writer for the New Yorker.
Sullivan, a life-long bachelor, spent much of life in Saratoga in the house in which he grew up.
One of my favorite Sullivan stories, entitled "Letter to a Neighbor" (I think it's fiction based on fact), is in the form of a letter written by Sullivan to Butch, a five-year-old neighbor boy. In it, Frank reflects on their friendship and how much it means to him. He describes their meeting, when Butch pulled a fake gun on Frank and pretended to rob him, the regular sessions in which Butch asks endless questions, and gardening:
"You have transformed gardening from the sedative chore of a middle-aged gaffer into an adventure fraught with the unpredictable. Every blossom in the garden, every blade on the sward, trembles when you gallop into view, joyfully crying that you have come to help me weed. And every weed rejoices."
The story ends with Frank describing a day in which Butch was into everything in Frank's home. Frank goes into another room and after ten minutes of silence, goes in to make sure Butch isn't burning the house down:
"You were fast asleep in the big armchair. The recent dynamo was just a tired little boy, worn out by the arduous duties of running the neighborhood and seeing to it that no dull moments crept therein. You looked so small and so innocent, curled up in the armchair, that an odd emotion came over me.
Can it be that you have made me discontented with my status in life? Before I me you, I was a contented bachelor."
You can find this story in a Dover edition entitled Frank Sullivan at His Best (it's also available on Kindle).
Jump forward to today. Would we look on Uncle Bill, Chesterton, Lord Emsworth, or Sullivan with suspicion? Probably we would.
I'm not even sure I have a point, other that to say that, while we must protect our children from predators, we must also find ways for them to develop pure, loving relationships with older folks. It's good for the kids, but old people like me need an occasional dose of the undiluted love that only a child can give us.