Disconcerting noises from next room.
Adult voice: “Nicholas! Why is your sister crying? Did you hurt her?”
Smaller voice: “Not yet…”
Let me introduce one of my favorite people, the artist, theologian, philosopher, and, as of today, nine year old Nicholas Joseph. And clearly, Diogenes could put down his lamp, for here is an honest (young) man.
Nine years ago today his mother called to tell me she was in labor with her first child. Despite some brief confusion regarding Castrol oil versus castor oil, Nicholas made his safe entry into our world. In honor of his notable birthday, I would like to share some memories and quotes from those nine years.
Nicholas has always worked at being a diplomat. As a frequent visitor to his home, I had become “CieCie”. At two years old, Nicholas was quick to listen and quick to learn, in this case, how to compliment. I had just greeted his little sister when he turned to me and said, “Why, look at you, CieCie. You’re getting bigger and bigger every time I see you!” Later, to his mother, “Mom, is God bigger than CieCie?” And once, he generously offered to make me a bathing suit, “but, I’m going to need a REALLY BIG piece of paper.”
Little Nicholas loved to be “talked in” at night, and in the morning, he knew exactly how to get me to make oatmeal, his favorite food. “CieCie, I love you. CieCie, you are beautiful! Let’s make oatmeal together.”
He could be genuinely appreciative. His love of oatmeal was partly due to an almost totally sugar-free diet in his early years. He thought a bran muffin was cake. Once a lady in a diner gave him a lollipop which he held up proudly all the way home, announcing, “That lady gave me a balloon!”
Nicholas was and is filled with energy and enthusiasm. He came one day with his sister to visit “CieCie City” and was delighted to climb all six flights of stairs to my apartment. “You are so lucky CieCie! You live at the top of a skyscraper!” (His little sister, meanwhile, was muttering, “Are we there yet?”) And then, at the top, “You have the best apartment ever! You have spices on your wall!”
Nicholas likes to acquire lore and to share his wisdom. His mother had a beautiful but delicate manger scene that he had been told not to touch. But he felt that my being there made things different, so he grabbed a lamb and held it out to me, “Here, CieCie. Just touch it gently with one finger, like this.” Likewise, he was careful to be gentle with his baby sister. We came upon him once as, not he, but his stuffed lion, pushed her violently in the baby swing: “No, no, no, Lion!” he shouted. “That is too fast!”
He was wise to the appropriate age for various beverages. Coming downstairs on the morning of his third birthday he asked gravely, “Since I am older now, can I have coffee?” And whenever he met older children, he would promptly ask, “Do you drink wine?” (His father is a Master of Wine).
Nicholas’ theological interests are strong but not always clear. He may have become confused about Santa Claus, after his mother told him the story of St. Nicholas, who lived and died in the early centuries of the Church. “CieCie, Santa is dead!” he announced when I arrived for a weekend visit. But then, the next morning, we visited the mall to ride the escalators. And lo and behold, there was Santa Claus. “Look Mom! Santa is alive! He is risen from the dead and born again!”
Nicholas has always been devout. He liked to pray to the “Secret Heart of Jesus” and at Mass sing “Lasagna in the Highest!” He loved to make art projects for God (“Don’t tell Him though—I want it to be a surprise when I get to heaven!”) He one day asked, “Mom, can I eat a grasshopper to show God how much I love him like John the Baptist did?” and would have frequent conversations with the Blessed Mother. We overheard one such conversation with a statue of Mary outside the Church: “Mary, please help the poor and the people and purgatory. And, by the way, I really like your dress.”
As he grew older, he began to speculate about heaven. “Mom,” he confided, “I think heaven is going to be a really tough place.” “Why?” she asked. “Well, one of the angels already got kicked out.” He figured that there must be different levels in heaven: “The lowest are near God’s toenails.” But he was curious, “Where exactly is hell, Mom? Is it in France?”
But being a Christian is not always easy, Nicholas has learned. One day when he was fighting with his brothers and sisters, his mother scolded him. “Jesus said to love your enemies!” she said. “But mom, it’s not fair. It’s so much harder for people who have siblings to forgive!”
He was keen to share his love of philosophy and theology with his siblings. One day when he was five, his mother overheard him explaining life to his three- year-old sister.
Statues don’t move. They are sometimes white or brown. They are different from human beings. Nobody ever tells you what human beings are…you have to figure it out by yourself. People just keep saying the words ‘human beings’ to you and you never know what it means…you have to figure it out all by yourself. I will try to explain it to you so you know what people are talking about when they say ‘human beings…’
She also was a quick learner. “Saint Patrick, we love you. Thank you for teaching us about the Trinity using the three leaves. We know it is NOT poison ivy.”
Nicholas also shares other life skills with his three siblings. Once he flicked a piece of broccoli neatly across the table. He warned them, “When you become a Mr. or Mrs., you forget how to do things like that!” He tells us his favorite foods (after oatmeal) are Chicken Farmer John and Yankee Doodle, otherwise known as Chicken Parmesan and Macaroni and Cheese.
In addition to city visits, theology, and food, Nicholas loves art, travel and languages. He knows how to “talk like Dora” (as per his amazed classmate) as well as to speak in French, and he is studying Chinese. He likes to write and illustrate his own books. (You can see one of his illustrations at the end of this post.) And below, he and his sister perform for Youtube their interpretation of Halloween. (Note the intro in multiple languages, in case people in Spain end up watching it…)
Early on he was leaning towards a career that would honor both parents: “I want to be a Mommy who drinks wine!” But since then he has decided that someday he and his sister will be presidents together, or open a lemonade stand to make money “enough to build a house to live in with all of the poor. The house will have lava lamps, disco lights and a coffee maker. I’ve always wanted to serve the poor people coffee every morning!”
Best of luck and Happy Birthday to Nicholas Joseph!
Halloween Song (sung by Nicholas and interpreted by his sister Theresa in the background)