By James W. Gaynor
How a politically active gay writer / poet / found-object sculptor (dog walker / French tutor / apartment painter / cat sitter / waiter / bartender, etc.) became an inadvertent grandperson is a story that continues to surprise me. Not the least because it is my own — and that of what we three like still to call our Alternative Family Structure, although it has expanded over the years to take on tribal characteristics.
It all began one day in 1984 when, unlocking the door to my studio apartment, I looked down into the eyes of my four-year-old neighbor, Samantha Rosenberg. And for lack of any better explanation, I fell in love.
Samantha lived across the hall with Nancy, her recently divorced mother. She had dismounted from her pink tricycle (the building had a long hallway, ideal for an Upper East Side kid to play in on her own), and she tugged at my trouser leg. She asked for some help opening her apartment door. And the rest was history — our own annals, the story of three people who raised each other into adulthood and beyond.
When I talk about this (and I do), I like to make it clear that Sammy is an old soul —wise in ways that continue to astound her mother and me. And in the telling, I think perhaps she was never more far-seeing than that day in the hall when she decided her mother could probably use some help. And that she, Samantha, could work with me. She saw that I had possibilities.
We started slowly. I changed lightbulbs and painted the bathroom (a somewhat startling faux-finished green marbling that brought me several commissions over the following years). My fondness for my power drill and WD-40 earned me nickname “Tool,” which we used interchangeably with Samantha’s seventh-grade decision that I was her “Alternative Father Figure” aka “AFF”. Samantha became, for reasons which have never been completely clear, “Lamb Dancer”; and later, as her passion for 19th-century Russian novelists developed, “The Princess Samnitsky”. Nancy, in addition to her Ivy League credentials and career in the financial services sector, was something of an after-hours hot ticket, so she rounded out our list of soubriquets with “Doll”.
Our special names and special language evolved over the course of years, as did our family. Samantha’s father remarried and started a new family — never abandoning his first-born, but leaving Nancy and me as primary on-site parenting units for the amazing Samnitsky.
And amazing she was. Precocious and inquisitive, nothing was too much for our curly-haired marvel. Sammy was terrific at math and soon took over deciding how much money could be spent on what at the grocery store. She loved French and rapidly became fluent — and my years in Paris studying the development of the 17th-century psychological novel and teaching about Emily Dickinson could finally be put to use.
Most of all, she and I shared a love of words. I am a writer, and I taught her what I knew about how to write. For someone who had always thought he would be a teacher, I had been given my own school. Homework became an organizing event, and we were often joined after school by Sammy’s friends.
By the time Sammy was in high school, I had graduated from the Swedish Institute and had my own massage therapy practice, so I could be around, sometimes annoyingly, pretty much full-time.
I somehow survived the epidemic. In that process, Sammy became an unofficial member of ACT UP — and her mother and I remain convinced that her early exposure to how public action can force government to act (and react) better was a contributing factor to both her firm moral compass and her commitment to a career in public service.
We three grew into a functioning family unit. Sammy had a dramatic and very scary emergency appendectomy. Nancy moved into a high-pressure job involving a lot of travel. As a result, during the week I was the parental figure of last resort, following up on school assignments and working with a network of building-employee spies to make sure that Sammy could never get away with much.
Not that she was ever particularly good at breaking the rules — whatever minor infraction she committed, from cutting class to sneaking a cigarette, she somehow was immediately apprehended. With success as a career criminal denied, years of our shared crush on Chris Noth of TV’s Law & Order indicated that some form of law enforcement would be a better way to go. And off in that direction she went — after law school, a successful stint as an assistant district attorney in Queens, then moving on to be the chief of staff for a Democratic New York State Assembly member.
Our Alternative Family Structure has evolved and expanded. Shortly after Sammy left for college, Nancy met Joe, and they married. I met Brad, and we didn’t. Samantha met the incredibly wonderful Jonathan. Nancy and I met his parents. Everyone fell in love with everyone else. And then I, as the resident gentile, insisted on the religious wedding, which I got to give — and in true found-object style, made the chuppah out of crutches, chopsticks and pull tabs, all collected from the streets of New York.
Which brings us to the recurring astonishment of our continuing saga: Thirty-whatever years on, with countless stories to recount about the joys and challenges of being Samantha’s AFF, the politically active gay writer / poet / sculptor (dog walker / French tutor / apartment painter / cat sitter / waiter / bartender, etc.) is now a grandperson.
It took some effort, but I’ve adjusted to the idea that Samantha and I were both old enough for this to happen (and in gay years, I’m about 90). I’ve embraced my new status with passion. Moses Robert Darche has entered our lives and changed everything.
He is a miracle. Moses is also the best friend of my redoubtable canine companion, Emily Dickinson Gaynor (of When the Dog Bites fame here at OTV). And I am putty in their collective tiny paws and hands.
I wrote a poem, “Meeting Moses,” about the first time I held my grandchild. And another. And then another. Which became my first book of poetry, Everything Becomes a Poem. It is dedicated to Moses in the hopes that, in the years to come when I am no longer a physical presence, I will be something more than a collection of amusing anecdotes about that man from across the hall who helped to raise his mother. And in the meantime, I am that pony-tailed old guy with a small dog (who thinks she’s a wolf), who gets to push the stroller home from day care and tries not to talk too much about how brilliant his grandson is.
Inadvertent grandpersonhood? I highly recommend it.
The Moses Poems
[For Moses Robert Darche]
Of many Moseses
And not only in your name
Is there a
We will not know
But also in your
Clear gray gaze
A wordless poem
The beginning of our journey
Each a grand person
In the other’s eyes
Before / After
[For Samantha Rosenberg Darche]
I had of course a suitable amount of time to adjust to the idea
But I’m not sure it could ever
Have been enough since it was only a few years ago
She was riding her pink tricycle and how
Now she is old enough to have career and a husband and a child is
Beyond comprehension and
Probably the subject for something else about time and age
But I digress
I imagined a twig in winter
Gelid sap and frosty air
I would be the transgrandparent
A James Bond version of Auntie Mame
Just in from somewhere not here
Stepping out of a limousine
Jumping off a motorcycle
Immediately identifiable as
The One Not Like The Others
I would discreetly flaunt my
Japanese tattoos and
Known only as
Gregg the Surf God with Three Gs
What actually happened is
A bunny named Pat
On appointed evenings I trail
A little body who can say
Please / thank you / woof and
Sits in my lap as we read about
A bunny named Pat
The only connection
Between the two grandfathers
Is the sap
Far from hidden deep
In a December branch
It is what
I have become
[For Moses Robert Darche]
It’s always a good idea to get the fact
my grandson is a genius
out of the way early in the conversation
although I have already
provided sufficient examples to prove my case
by now have created an agreed-upon framework
that would save all of us a lot of time but never mind
when asked after being read the book about cows
forming a labor union because the barn is cold and
they want electric blankets you know the one I mean
you don’t you should because it too is genius
so anyway when he was asked if he knew
what sound a cow makes
he appeared to give it some thought
Before saying “Yes”
he found something better to do which
turned out to be singing to the dog
leaving all concerned with a sense he might
be destined for the law or possibly preparing
to testify under oath somewhere
he is going to be this sophisticated
or seriously let’s face it bordering on
just a bit sarcastic and world-weary for
someone who’s not even two yet we’d better
start with the French Existentialists now.
Photo credit: Robert Schechter
Watch the Everything Becomes a Poem book launch!
James W. Gaynor is a poet, artist, editor, and writer. A graduate of Kenyon College, he lived in Paris, where he taught a course on Emily Dickinson at the University of Paris, studied the development of the psychological novel in 17th -century France, and worked as a translator.
After returning to New York, Gaynor worked as an editor at Grosset & Dunlap, Cuisine magazine, Scriptwriter News and Forbes Publications, where he was on the editorial staff of the Social Register. His articles, book reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Observer, and he recently retired as the Global Verbal Identity Leader for Ernst & Young LLP.
A silver medalist in the 1994 Gay Games (Racewalking), Gaynor’s found-object sculpture has been exhibited internationally. He is a member of the Advisory Board of New York’s The Creative Center at University Settlement, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing the creative arts to people with cancer and chronic illnesses.
An avid urbanite, Gaynor lives in New York City.