Names and The Stories They Hold
My name was a consolation prize. What's your story?
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By any other name, would we be who we are?
“What's your name,' Coraline asked the cat. 'Look, I'm Coraline. Okay?'
'Cats don't have names,' it said.
'No?' said Coraline.
'No,' said the cat. 'Now you people have names. That's because you don't know who you are. We know who we are, so we don't need names.” ― Neil Gaiman, Coraline
I asked. You answered. I am grateful. I heard from so many of you last week with thoughtful responses to my survey questions and, even better, imaginative, thoughtful names with which to christen our new dog. I’ll share the survey findings with you next week. If you haven’t had a chance and want to offer your two cents, there is still time. Just click this link:
So Many Names, Too Few Dogs
As for our puppy: her name is now - cue heralding trumpets -- is Frida Persephone Mango Marro, AKA Velcro Girl. We will call her Frida. Or Frida K. Or Freddie. Or Mango. I’m sure she’ll be called a lot of other (fond) names as we get to know her better. We’ll have plenty to choose from: we received 73 suggestions plus we had a few of our own. Several popped up more than once: Cora, Dulce, Mango, Sparky, and Velcro. Others caught us wondering why we were so stuck in our little rut: Onion, Burbank, Butterscotch, Luxie (short for Electrolux). I loved Charlie for some reason, a feeling unshared by my partner.
The whole process got me thinking about names - the importance we give to them and the outright hubris it takes to impose a name on another living being. A little dog doesn’t much care. Like the cat in Coraline, our little four-legged knows perfectly well who she is. We are the ones who feel compelled to christen her, to make her ours. I felt the same responsibility and thrill/frisson of power when I was pregnant all those years ago and spent hours debating names with my first husband. We both agreed that we didn’t want to name the baby after anyone in our families -- we both had been namesakes. At best, that route lacked imagination. At worst, carrying the name of someone else hemmed us in before either of us knew who we were.
My husband was named after his father. My name was a consolation prize for my aunt who, at eleven, was deemed too young to be a bridesmaid in my mother’s wedding. My mom promised her she would make up for it by naming her first girl after her. Nine months and 13 days later, I was born and soon after became Elizabeth Ann also known as Betsy, like my aunt. At one point I remember asking my mother if we could just please make my name a little fancier by adding an “e” at the end of Ann or before the “y” in Betsy. Nothing came of it. I believed that if I had a different name, I’d be a different person, or at least seen differently by others.
In my clan, the name Elizabeth Ann crops up like crabgrass, persistent and pervasive. There is my aunt, my cousin, a stepsister. My first husband’s mother bore the name as did his second wife. All three of us go by Betsy. Make of that what you will.
I was looking forward to being confirmed because, at 12 or 13, I could choose my own confirmation name. I chose Francis. Then, two days before the ceremony a boy in my class told me I had to pick a female saint’s name, not a male’s. On top of that, I had chosen a male sponsor. He was right. The parish priest had screwed up. The Bishop had to be consulted. He let me keep the name (grudgingly) but not the sponsor.
As furious as I was at the time, this dustup was insignificant compared to the struggles of people who are trapped by names they were given at birth based on what their parents saw of their bodies and the culture into which they were born. Every time I read stories like these brief accounts of trans and nonbinary people who changed their names I am struck all over again by the power of a name to trap or to free the bearer.
I wonder about the story that lies behind each name. We’ve all got one, even if it seems unremarkable. What is yours?
How did you get your name? Does your name feel like a pair of comfortable, well-worn shoes or a shirt that pinches when you raise your arms? Have you ever thought of changing you it? If you are married, did you take any part of your spouse’s name?
Long Read: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
Coincidentally, a trailer for the movie The Namesake popped up this week when we were looking through one of the streaming services for movies to watch. The movie is based on the unforgettable novel by Jhumpa Lahiri about a family, a name, and journey from India to America that began when the father almost died in a train wreck. He was saved when the rescuers saw the flutter of a page from the book of short stories by Nikolai Gogol still clasped in his hand. When his son was born in an American hospital and the letter from his Bengali grandmother containing the “good” name she’d chosen for his child went missing in the mail, he named his child Gogol, as a placeholder, a pet name, because to leave a child unnamed in America led to more bureaucratic hassle than the two new parents wanted.
The story is so rich, so beautifully told. And the story of that name which the bearer is stuck with no matter what he tries to do about it is also the story of how he comes to understand his parents and his own life. I just bought a copy of this beautiful book to re-read over the Thanksgiving holiday. I am going to want to talk about it afterwards. If you loved this book or want to read/re-read it again, let me know how it strikes you. If you want to watch the movie over the holiday, you can find it on Hulu where there is a free trial period.
Short Reads: Not All Names Are Inherited
I went looking for some information and articles about naming traditions and found some fascinating ones. The traditions of Native Americans have always varied by tribe. Yet, there appears to be a shared understanding of the uniqueness and importance of a name. As in The Namesake, there are the names used for every day or the ones used to satisfy modern requirements but the “real” name may be years in coming. The real name needs to be unique, not shared with others. A close friend or an elder may select or gift the name -- parents are often considered too biased. There is a ceremony when the name and the person are bonded forever. I imagine that moment as a kind of rebirth.
This brief BBC article, “Africa’s Naming Traditions: 9 Ways to Name Your Child,” highlights all the ways different Africans approach the naming of a child and how those names inform others of everything from their parents’ mood at the time, to the order of their birth, to the day of the week they were born.
And until I saw this article about Western European traditions, I never realized there was a kind of built-in algorithm that made choosing names simply a matter of matching birth order with specific, well-used names already in the family tree.
While we’re on the subject, what about these names?
Once we get away from people's names, things get interesting. For years, I’ve been captivated by how some business names are perfect and others, well, make you kind of wonder. There is a hair salon a few towns over from where I used to live in New Jersey. It is called The Guillotine. It is fancy, in a brick building and no one, to my knowledge, has ever lost their entire head there. Still, I would not risk it for myself. Ditto for a couple of local salons: The Electric Chair, and Kut-A-Beauty which are probably just fine but somehow all I can think of is the smell of charred flesh at one and the serial killer who may be wielding the scissors at the other.
My sister once lived Number 9 Dream Island. And my cousins once lived near a street called Skunk’s Misery. Stories live in these names. I hope to write them.
That’s it for this week. Thank you again for your support, your great feedback, and all those names. Fair warning: I am keeping all of them and have added every single one to my database of character names — for people and four-leggeds. You will see them again.
I’ll see you next week. I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving filled with the food you like, people you love, memories you cherish, health, and happiness. If you’re looking for a good book don’t forget The Namesake. You’ll find it at the Spark Community Recommendations Page at bookshop.org along with lots of other choices.
Ciao for now,
P.S. And now, your moment of Zen…finding peace in a memory
From Robert Howard: It’s 1946 and here I am with Pop, my maternal grandfather, Mum, and my uncle Sid. Seventy-five years I am the only one alive, but that isn’t quite true. They all live in my head, and I write about them here.
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