My dreams of romantic childhood were primarily formed, inspired, and fostered by my father. Almost 50 when I was born, with a failed conversion from Judaism to Catholicism and a failed first marriage behind him, and with a strained relationship to his son from that first marriage, I think he saw in this second marriage and especially in his second chance at fatherhood an opportunity for redemption, for finding that place of transcendence and bliss, uncomplicated and pure happiness, that had proved so elusive. And he committed himself to fatherhood with fervor and joy.
My very first memory is a kind of Wordsworthian scene, but one in which my father, the nominal adult, helped me, the young child, to see as a child ideally should. It was a summer night in Spain, I was a little over three, and an especially dramatic thunderstorm woke me, terrified, in the middle of the night. The memory begins with my father’s voice in my ear and the two of us gazing out into the night. Framed by the large window, the scene before us was like a little theatre: the familiar garden strangely unfamiliar, the sky an indigo blue lit periodically by silvery flashes. Narrating the scene, my father sounded like a madcap sportscaster: “there’s a big lightning! there’s a little one . . . oh a big one again!” he exclaimed as he held me firmly with one hand and gesticulated skyward with the other. I remember something disorienting becoming something glorious. I remember feeling so safe not because he protected me from fear but because he helped me to confront it. He didn’t tuck me back into bed; he took me to the window. I remembered asking him: “when is the thunder going to come again, Daddy?” and him telling me “I don’t know, Sidda (my family nickname), but that’s part of the excitement, isn’t it?” My father reassured me that it was all right not to know, to remain in a state of awe and mystery. He gave what could have been a nightmare “the glory and the freshness of a dream.”
That same enthusiasm, energy, zaniness, and plunging into life he exhibited on the night of the storm in Spain informed his larger approach to parenting. My father was dedicated to giving me and my younger sister Claire a childhood characterized by transformations of the common into the extraordinary, freshness of perception, spiritual intensity, and ardent dreaminess. He participated fully in our imaginative life and shared our passions. He looked forward to watching Sesame Street as much if not more than we did, and could have read to us from The Wizard of Oz series into the late hours of the night if my mother had allowed it. He not only respected, he also almost seemed to share our belief that our Paddington Bears were not just well-loved stuffed animals but living, breathing members of our family; he asked them questions (which Claire and I answered in squeaky little boy voices), brought our baby clothes out of storage and gave us his old glasses and ties for us to dress them in, and offered them bites of his toast or sips of his juice. He immersed himself in the world of our imaginary friends Tommy and Harry Tealock- “what did Tommy Tealock do at school today?” he’d ask, and once at the beach he cried: “there goes Harry Tealock!” while gesturing to no one in particular across the waves. When I began to devour Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books after he introduced me to them, he and I would compare notes on which plots were the twistiest, which titles were the spookiest (What Happened at Midnight and While the Clock Ticked) and which denouements the most satisfying. He’d drive us to the library every weekend and help us pick books, read them to us over and over again, and engage in animated discussions about them with us. He’d plan expeditions to a dollhouse store and share our rapture at the tiny Life magazines and miniature Coke bottles. As the Reverend Gilman, he officiated at the numerous weddings of our stuffed penguins and bears to our Mme Alexander dolls (humorous because Protestant is the one denomination he never was). As Director Gilman he visited the auditions Claire and I held for all-stuffed animal/doll productions of West Side Story and Oklahoma; he’d assess the vocal talent of Kanga and agreed that Horsie was perfect for the role of Judd Fry. And as Maestro Ricardo Gilman, he conceived, directed, and served as ringmaster of a circus my sister, our dear friend Sebastian, and I put on in Sienna, Italy the summer I was seven. Our best “trick” was the “clown car;” in a snaking rotation, we would all cycle through the back seat of our tiny Italian car and on the last go-round my father, who had lain unseen on the back floor the entire time with me, Claire, and Sebastian scampering over him, would rise from the floor and emerge, grinning triumphantly, from the impossibly small space.
My sister once aptly described what fatherhood meant to Daddy:
Fatherhood spoke to the core of who Daddy was as a person. It resonated with his basic faith in creativity. His love for the life of the mind. His deep imagination. And his quest for spiritual enlightenment and beauty. My father BELIEVED in childhood. And he infected my sister and me with this belief, leading us to develop the rich, imaginative life that we had as children . . . My father understood that imaginative creations were not secondary to real life but fundamental to a rich and fulfilling existence. Throughout his life, my father sought something higher, something beyond the dross of the everyday . . . My brother, sister, and I provided him with that. We were more than just his children. We represented all that was good in the world.
My father’s magical combination of solidity and ebullience, fierce protectiveness and playful charm, made him both the most exciting and the most reassuring parent imaginable. He was known in our family as the Great Finder, who could elevate a mundane search for a lost bus-pass or library book into a thrilling hunt complete with clues, retracing steps, and suspects, with my father in the role of the wise, witty, and unflappable Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, or Perry Mason (all great heroes of his). On a nursery school outing to the Bronx Zoo, my father scooped up a young rapscallion who’d been bothering me, held him above his head, and said with a mischievous grin: “I think it’s feeding time, and if you don’t stop pestering my daughter, it’s into the lion’s den for you!” But as anyone who knew my father well would attest, he was a person who himself needed a good deal of reassurance; he was an extraordinarily sensitive and vulnerable man. Perhaps it was for that very reason that he knew especially well how to recognize and honor vulnerability in others, and that children and animals universally adored him.
Retaining that childlike intensity of feeling and capacity for wonder, that acute sensitivity as it blended into vulnerability, however, had attendant with it certain risks- for my father and for the daughters who learned to love as he did: with the entirety of our beings. When you love like that, you can get your heart broken, even by a football team. My father frequently told the story of how, the day after he and I sat through a devastating Giants loss, I saw a photo in the New York Times of the linebacker Harry Carson sitting in dejection on the bench, and wrote him a consoling letter. “You mustn’t be sad. You’re a great player and a wonderful man,” I wrote. “We’ll all be happy again. I love you. Priscilla Gilman, age 9.” Just one year after I sent the letter to Harry Carson, I found myself uttering much the same words to my father as he was faced with the devastating loss of our family in the wake of my mother’s decision to end their marriage . . .
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour,
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower,
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.
(from The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy, pp. 5-9)