WHAT’S IN A NAME?
by Mary J. Breen
Some say our name is the sweetest sound we know, but surely that’s only true for those who like their names. However, like them or not, we care a lot about what we are called. The names we are given define us and survive us, reflecting family, language, culture, and religion. Our names are how we are known in birth records, school records, work records, prison records, marriage records, pension records, and death records; and our names are forever attached to the letters and books we write, the paintings we paint, and the buildings we build. Our names are our links to the past and the future.
My son came to understand the importance of names. When he was about ten, he decided that he hated his. No longer was he going to answer to Gabriel; he was going to be Gabe, only Gabe. (I think someone had teased him for his “girly” name. Sigh.) We tried, but it was hard to remember his new name overnight; perhaps that’s why he thought it might work better if he changed it officially. I kept telling him that that wasn’t necessary. Then one day he spotted a sign on a building: Federal Ministry of Corrections. “That’s it!” he cried. He was practically hopping up and down on the spot. “Here it is! Here’s where we go to correct my name!”
I too, when I was young, wanted a new name although it hadn’t occurred to me to appeal to the government for help. In the 1950s, Marys were as common as head colds; two in every class and three on every team. My name also seemed to compel relatives and even perfect strangers to call me Mary, Mary, quite contrary or Just Mary, the name of a popular children’s radio show in Canada at that time. Right, I was Just Mary. My mother pronounced it MAY-ree. It’s a good thing I hadn’t yet heard Jimmy Stewart say MAH-ry in It’s a Wonderful Life, so soft, down deep in his throat. It would have made MAY-ree even worse.
My parents’ opinion that Mary was the loveliest name of all, so holy, so universal, did nothing to change my mind. What I wanted was something less boring and ordinary, something just for me. After all, I got to pick good names for my dolls and my kittens, so why couldn’t I choose one for myself? At about age twelve, I came up with the perfect solution: since my second name is Josephine, I announced I would henceforth be known as Mary Jo, a name I’d seen in a book. My father was not impressed. “If Mary is good enough for the Blessed Virgin,” he said, “it’s good enough for you.” And so Mary I remained.
Twenty years later, during the heady days of the counterculture and early feminism, names took on new significance. First we changed Miss or Mrs. to Ms. to remove any reference to marital status, and then we dropped our married surnames to return us to what we called “our own names.” Some women also gave their babies extraordinary names like Athena, Gaia, and Zen. Within this naming fever, many of us also realized that our own first names were much too traditional, so we changed them to reflect the strong liberated women we wanted to be. Here was my big chance, but try as I did, I could never decide on a good new name. I didn’t want to be Morning or Miah or Majesty; besides, I already had a new name that I was very happy with: Mummy.
And so I remained Just Mary.
The years passed and mostly I had outgrown my wish for a new and better name. Then I had my first grandchild. When he was about two, he and his mother were visiting from afar. He was starting to imitate words well, so my daughter said, “Jacob; this is your Granny. Can you say ‘Granny’?” He looked up at me, and in a very sober, clear voice said, “Dogal” (a rhyme with “mogul”). My daughter and I fell about laughing, and decided to wait until he’d forgotten about this daft name. However, when we tried again, his answer was the same, an emphatic “Dogal!” And so this became it—the name both he and his brother call me. And in that way that good ideas can arrive with speed and grace and accuracy, I realized that this was what I’d been waiting for all my life: a unique name, a special name, and one given to me by someone I will love forever.
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A version of "What's in a Name" was previously published in Grandparents Day Magazine (Australia) in 2011.
Mary J. Breen is the author of two books about women's health. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in national newspapers, essay collections, travel magazines, health journals, and literary magazines including Brick, The Christian Science Monitor, Ars Medica, The National Post, and JAMA Cardiology. She was a regular contributor to The Toast. She lives in Peterborough Ontario Canada where, among other things, she teaches writing.