Stories & Essays

Does Anybody Know My Name?
originally a guest column for Jon Carroll in The San Francisco Chronicle

     When I was four months pregnant and we knew we were having a boy, my husband and I began to search for names. We both liked Irish names. Still, we argued. "How about Galen?" "I'd rather Christopher." "What about Aubrey?" "I'd rather Sean." We settled on "Christopher Sean," until a friend said:  "It sounds like he'll be born in a crew-neck sweater, ready for the Cambridge boating team." "That's the problem with names," I told my husband. "They don't stand on their own.  They remind you of something." "Of course," he said. "That's partly the point." When drew a blank, he looked annoyed.   "Names are  a legacy," he said.  "They give you roots."  
       I knew better.  At best, names are a temporary legacy. They can camouflage roots.  They can vanish in an instant:  I knew because I'd changed my name.  And all those months, whenever we argued, I thought of my mother, seven months pregnant, poring over my father's family tree--an exotic tome for the daughter of two Rumanian Jews--looking for my name.   My father's family went back to Wales and Fletcher Christian. His relatives fought in the Revolution and signed their names with an X--the symbol for Christ's cross, as well as illiteracy.  My mother's father was raised as a Chassid in the Rumanian town of Yasse.  He studied Aramaic and talked to ghosts.
      During those hot June nights in Princeton, while my father snored on a pull-out daybed, my mother sat with her feet in ice-water, reading names from his family tree.   Most of those names were as ordinary as spoons or coins.  But it was a different kind of name she chose for me--hard to spell, belying antiquity. It belonged to my great-great- great-grandmother who lived in North Carolina,  smoked a corncob pipe and wasn't completely happy with the outcome of the Civil War.  Her name was Linnie.  
      My mother was trying to escape her origins.  Instead she walked back into them.  Like her father's name, Liebovici,  Linnie had all the characteristics of a foreign name.  It didn't stand on its own.  It had to be explained.  Was it a boy's name?  a nickname?  short for Linda?  what was my real name? At the beginning of every year teachers grilled me.  Even my father's mother, who ruled a Presbyterian manse that looked like the house in Clue. would bellow: "What kind of a name is Linnie, anyway?  Not a natural one anymore is what I say!"  Her mouth worked like a hinge on a narrow mailbox.  Hello there!   Pause.  Good ta see ya.  Pause.  Ever been baptized?   Pause. Well. Ya oughta be.  
      In the Bronx, my mother's mother found the name "Linnie" exotic but lovely.  She called me shone madele, or used the Jewish diminutive Linna-lee.    Her apartment faced an avenue where women on camp stools crocheted, gossiped, pulled their stockings below their knees, fanned their crotches with the Freiheit.  My grandmother sat among them,  and sometimes called out: " Yoo hoo!  Linna-lee! The ice-cream man is here!"
      Eventually, tired of explaining, I followed the example of many weary immigrants:  I changed my name.  I was in California during the early eighties:  Mary's  called themselves "Bloodroot.  Pete's  said:  "Hello! My name is Sky."  I chose "Thaisa"  because I was used to an exotic name and I liked the fact that it meant "to tie" or "to bond," in Greek.  Unlike "Linnie," I liked the way it sounded. No one has ever asked me if it's a boy's name or a nick-name--or my real name, even though, in many senses, it really isn't.
     When our son was born we still hadn't found a name and as far as I was concerned he could be nameless forever.   That way the world couldn't claim him. He would have no legacy to throw away. I liked watching him sleep, not tethered to the world of permanent records. My husband begged me to choose a working-title.  We decided on "Casey Alexander." Alexander, because it belonged to a general on my husband's side, and (like my mother, after all) we were seduced by origins. Casey, because it sounded like a friendlier version of Christopher. "It matches him, doesn't it?" said my husband, looking at the obscure blue form in the cradle. "Of course it does!" I said.
      Casey is now eleven. He does karate kicks in the kitchen, and asks: "Mom--were the seventies icy?" He also says he's thinking of changing his name. "To what?" I wonder. "To Tasselhof," he answers. He pauses, does another karate kick. "Not that I don't like Casey. But Tasselhof is extra cool."