June 11 is my grandmother, Gloria’s birthday, or would be if she still lived; she would be 86 years old today. In many ways we are nothing alike; I am even less like the grandmother from whom I borrow my middle name, Elaine, but borrow their names I do. Maybe it is old fashioned of me, but I believe that the gift of another’s name comes with a certain responsibility.
That responsibility is not necessarily to “live up to” what those who came before would have done, in some cases, that would be wrong. My grandmothers came from different worlds than I did. One grew up in Kentucky at the beginning of the last century, and carried forward some version of those ideals throughout her life. Grandma Gloria was very religious and not just practiced her Catholic faith, she lived and breathed it every second of her life in a way that religion has never entered mine. Both had different child rearing techniques than I choose to employ and neither were as open minded as I try to be. No, it is not a responsibility to emulate that comes with a name.
The responsibility is also not about keeping the name clean or honorable, despite what thousands of years of culture teach. In my grandmothers’ eyes I do a number of “immoral” things. From the way I enjoy booze, to the cannabis I smoke, to the way I brazenly peel off my clothes and parade myself through the streets, I am regularly engaged in behavior that would have shamed them in their own times.
So what is the responsibility I speak of? What does it change my life one iota whether my grandmothers gave me their names? It does not. Not in the great scheme of anything, however, from where I sit, on this day, when I think about Grandma Ross, I know my name remains a gift from her through my parents to me; my responsibility is only to know and remember the women who lent their names to me.
So what is in a name? With Grandma Ross? Her maiden name: was Sonntag, and with this I was able to find the records of her youth in Catholic school, the census of our family in 1940, records that show her parents came to the US from “Rumania” via Saskatchewan just a few years before her birth. What is in a name? A bit of a song. A bit of our history. A bit of knowing something in ourselves we might not have seen before. Grandma liked to make things, she liked her kitchen organized, her canning set up in the basement, the obvious love between her and my Grandfather was a lesson to be kept well by us all.
In a name is a reminder of where we come from and what we are.
Thanks Grandma, and Happy Birthday.