Figuring Out Who You Are

Hand with book“Please don’t call me Doctor Jones,” said an extremely distinguished PhD speaker I met recently; “I’m just a teacher named Joe. I’ve been Joe all my life.” His name is changed to protect the innocent.

Having one name all your life is almost as interesting to some of us… of a certain age… as meeting a prominent multiple-degree lecturer who calls himself “just a teacher.”

Not someone of many degrees, I am nevertheless someone of many names. Maiden name, married name, resumption of maiden name after divorce, brief and ill-fated second marriage (yep, changed my name again,) eventual marriage to my Final Husband, whose name I took on moving across the U.S. nearly a quarter of a century ago. Because I’ve been writing since college (Fran Moreland) I often joke – though this is not a source of pride, only comic relief – that my literary resume reads like an anthology. Each name still bears its own notoriety, as well as its own burdens.

A fascinating look at what names and name changes have meant to women over the centuries is offered by my talented writer/scientist friend Jo Anne Simson in a recent article published in Persimmon Tree magazine titled “What’s in a Name.”

Names, Simson writes, have been used against women in subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – ways to subjugate, control and deny their sense of personhood. Probably the most damning of these practices for women in America was the assigning to slaves the surname of their masters, which “ruptured a connection to a past culture from which they had been torn most unwillingly. Moreover, the name change signified an identity conversion from personhood to property… ‘Leave your past behind. You are now property, not a person.’”

This writer’s post graduate experience ended with an MFA in short fiction, University of San Francisco Class of 2000, which conferred a degree but no title. I have, however, managed to keep my final literary name since 1992.

At about the same time I took on the final marital/literary name above, my first grandchild was born, bringing the other defining ID: Gran. The favorites survive.

 

 

Illness, loss and words of comfort

New York Times Personal Health writer Jane Brody last week noted another chapter in the wrenching drama she has shared with readers, first with the cancer diagnosis of her husband, lyricist Richard Engquist, and later following his death on March 18. In the new essay Brody tells of condolences received from friends and strangers. The writing, she says, has been therapeutic.

But one piece of therapy I never expected was the feedback from readers, friends and acquaintances: many hundreds of condolence letters, e-mail messages and comments on The New York Times’s Well blog.

Whether in a card, note, letter, phone message, hug or pat on the shoulder, some people seem to know instinctively how to show they care and will remember the deceased. What stands out most in these messages is their deeply personal quality. People who knew my husband in various walks of life (especially his advocacy for his beloved Prospect Park and his career as a writer for the musical theater) saw him in ways that had escaped me, because I was too close to have their perspective. By sharing these details, they have rounded out my memories of a life shared and separate from his — memories I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Brody gives examples of the many messages about her husband that brought comfort, and offers thanks for the fact that those unwanted messages — “Surely you’ll meet someone else;” “I know how you feel, my dog died last year” — had not arrived.

There’s one thing often of great comfort to someone who’s suffered a loss that Brody doesn’t include and that doesn’t occur to everyone. It’s the reminder of what the survivor meant to the now-deceased, one of the easiest ways to write a quick, meaningful condolence note. I learned it many years ago from someone I never met. Her Army officer brother, to whom I’d been pinned (an emblem of commitment in those olden days; I’ve no idea if such customs still exist) was killed in Korea. I could not travel across the country for the funeral, all of the sympathy and support was rightfully going to his family, but I felt bereft and unconsoled. Then I got a two-line note. “Dave said you could always make him smile,” she wrote; “and that will always make us smile.”

Thoughtful people have reinforced the knowledge of how much such a thought can mean. “Your mother was so proud of you because —.” Happily, in this fast-moving world the snail-mail sympathy note seems to survive. And I suppose even the e-mail condolence is better than nothing. If you’re stumped for a note you could be writing, try it this way.