My mother ran out of names.
Providence Hospital, DC, March 3, 1955: Three days old, I lay swaddled in the nursery nameless.
Preceded by a sister, Maureen Ann, and a brother, Timothy Francis, it seems my mom had already exhausted a very brief list of favorite names and could not come up with one for baby number three – me!
The discharge nurse told my mom I had to have a name to be discharged. “What shall I write on the birth certificate? “ My mom responded with a question. “What’s your name? she asked the nurse. “Joan”, she said. “Then we’ll call her ‘Joan’,” my mom said, “and tack on ‘Louise’. That’s my middle name. That’ll work.”
So I went home as Joan. Joan Louise.
Growing up I searched for a grander story – a better story to tell. A grandiose little Catholic soul, I believed I was named for Jean d’Arc. A lacquered portrait of Joan hung on my bedroom wall – a First Communion present from my second cousin, the priest – Father Buddy Litkey. Shining in her armor, mounted on a white horse, banner furled, and wielding her sword, I believed myself her heir apparent.
So I canonized myself – St. Joan.
Yet even sanctified, It did not take long to grow bored with my monosyllabic name. (Don’t you love it that “monosyllabic” has five syllables?:)) Such a plain Jane name is Joan. So at my confirmation – as little RC kids traditionally do – I chose a saint to be my patron.
I chose “Veronica”: the woman of legend who wipes the face of Jesus on his way to Calvary. Her beautiful name literally means “true icon”. So beautiful. But for none of the above reasons did I choose it.
I chose it because it was the sexiest damn name this little 10 year old could come up with. Four syllables, exotic, and musical it rolled off the tongue –
But everyone still called me Joan. Well Joani actually (as I spell it now).
As a kid I tried to stretch my name on the page by adding letters: Joan, Joanie, Joannie. In my hippy dippy adolescence I chopped off a couple– an “n” and an “e” in homage to Joni Mitchell. I still have all of Joni’s music on my iPod, but I held on to the “a” for my own namesake:
Two weeks ago at SpeakeasyDC’s “Unhinged”, Dara, one of the storytellers, introduced us to her husband’s alter egos. Struggling in their marriage, she met them all in therapy. Out came Michael, a shy and vulnerable boy. Out came drill sergeant, Charlie, his champion and protector.
Her husband, who suffers from DID, Dis-Associative Identity Disorder, by any other name is still her husband. All three gentlemen sitting on the couch were fragments of the man she loves. Shattered by trauma, to cope and survive, he gives them different names.
Each week in therapy they would pick up the pieces, befriending the fragments, collecting them together, both hoping to be be healed, both hoping to be made whole.
And I too go to therapy — twice monthly — to remember my name. I go to recall who I am, to recall just who my God calls me to be – in this time and in this place. And in ten years time, who I call myself has changed many times over.
Names change as lives change. Biblically speaking, on the way to the Promised Land, Sarai becomes Sarah; Abram becomes Abraham. Wrestling with angels, Jacob is renamed as Israel.
Even the Holy One, whose name was never to be spoken, has too many names to number: Elohim, el Shaddai, YWHW, I AM, Emmanuel – just to name a few.
So what’s in a name?
Well for each and everyone of us – a whole, whole lot.
Name them and claim them. Count them up and collect them. Try to understand them. Hold them close and cherish them. Good. Bad. Indifferent. Birth to death, each and every one is an integral and indispensable part of you.
Thanks be to the nameless God — who calls us all by name — whatever that might be.