When You Call My Name
We have a very shallow naming pool over here on my side of the family tree. Names repeat within and across generations, to the point where we kind of have this Power-5 thing going on. When I was a child, I was not a big fan of my own name; it was never available in the personalized-keychain-displays in gift shops, or on the cool little license plates you could buy for your bike, no characters in books or movies shared it, kids mispronounced and misspelled it — it was not the trendy hip Tammy or Debbie or Linda of the time. Instead, it was culturally significant, and honored family members, and had a popularity all its own in certain circles. And yet, outside my professional life, not many, other than a handful of relatives, call me by it to this day.
Nicknames. What weird permutations on identity. Many are naturally born from given names — certainly that is the case with the names of my children. Some are more of a stretch, like deriving ‘Jack’ from ‘John’ or ‘Peggy’ from ‘Margaret’. Others have no tie to nomenclature at all; once, pre-gaming before a college reunion event, my girlfriends and I tried to come up with the given names of guys we knew well, who had hung out at our college house, and went by nicknames like Skip or Thumper or Chopper or Alien. I work in college athletics, and nicknames are so common coaches will text us, “Is Heat in the study hall?”, “Did Bug talk to you?”. It’s almost funny to notice when the nickname makes it outside the team and into social media, or into wider broad media use — like, yep, there it is.
Naming my own kids was pretty straightforward. I knew from early on that I wanted to name a child after my mom’s brother, who had died when he was in grade school. I told my mom this, when I was a young teen, and she said, “What if your husband doesn’t want that name?”, and (because I was sassy, and a young teen) I replied, “I guess he won’t be my husband then.”. Many years later I learned my mom’s brother’s given name was not the name I chose to honor AT ALL. The name bestowed upon my son (which my husband, btw, was quite fine with) was based on a nickname pulled straight out of the sky. All along, I’d been so certain that first child would be a boy, we never even selected a girl’s name. At the hospital, with delivery imminent, my husband asked, “What if it’s a girl?”, and I answered, “Mary, I guess.” (see the Power-5 reference, above). But here’s the thing, aside from that first child, we rarely call the kids by the names they were given. The beautiful thing is that they answer us anyway, in whatever manifestation of their name, or nickname, we put forth. Once, my daughter told her new-at-the-time beau to ‘just watch, no one will call me by my right name when we arrive’. She was, and is to this day, correct on that.
A tiny group of friends I lived with in college still call me by a nickname specific only to that time and place. Far more routinely, I answer to the nickname commonly associated with my first name. I don’t call my husband by his given name, unless I am talking about him, and he does not call me by mine. This was a mite challenging when our first child had a kindergarten-readiness assessment and struggled with “What are your parents’ names?”. Maybe you have a name only known to a select few, or even just to one person in particular, that is quietly your own in that space. Maybe it’s loudly your own, such as becoming “Papa” or “Grandma”. What we answer to speaks to who we are to others, especially to those we love. We called my own grandfather “Joe” (“That is my name”, he said, when asked what his first grandchild — me — should call him), but his wife was “Grandma”, explaining she’d always wanted to be “Grandma” and didn’t take that name or duty lightly. She lived long enough to be called “Grams” by my own children.
I came to grow into my own name, eventually. I was hesitant to give up my maiden name when I married, I liked it that much. “You just trade one man’s name for another man’s name, don’t get too attached,” said my mother. So my maiden name became my middle name in order to not lose it, or that part of my identity and heritage. My first name is for my aunt, who was a character all her own. Perpetually positive, she was also fiery and independent, single-parenting before that was a customary family unit. She recognized that many women left her profession (nursing) to care for families, then re-entered years later and needed training on newer practices. There was no template for a training course, so she wrote one. There was also no textbook, so she wrote that, too. I love that she was solution-focused and supported women in careers. She also was glamorous and gorgeous, and was even an extra in “North by Northwest”, shot in part in Chicago. There, she caught the eye of Cary Grant, who flirted with her and nearly asked her out but caught sight of her wedding band and apologized profusely, even sending a studio PR man to make amends. She and her then-husband became lifelong friends with the PR man, and her son is named for him. Names are often packed with incredible backstories.
The flavor of names with deep cultural roots is so rich. Not until I traveled did I recognize my name as very traditional in Irish circles. Working in education, I take extra care to learn pronunciation of students’ names I am not familiar with, to learn heritage and customs and stories that travel alongside identity. Families in many other cultures do not give their babies names until long after the baby arrives, and naming-days are often long-honored traditions. I myself never saw my name in print in any of the myriad books I read, until I came across “Misty of Chincoteague” in fourth grade. All my classmates were incredulous that the main character shared my name, and I would secretly delight in hearing our teacher read passages aloud, from a book based on true story with a real heroine who had my uncommon name. Hearing your name said aloud, whether formally or as a nickname or as a name bestowed by someone you love, is where powerful connection begins, and how it is sustained.
We are all so much more than our names on a roster or list or family tree. But who we are begins with what we are called, how we are called, and what we answer to. Like a prayer or a whisper, or a shout or a song, our names remain written in our histories, on the stars, and in the stories told to us and about us. As with so many stories, we begin with our name at the top of the page.