|Mary Luella, Marilyn, Janice|
My mother named me for the women of her family. For her sisters Marilyn and Janice and her beloved grandmother Mary Luella and for Mary Luella's mother Mary Ann. When I sign my name or say it, or hear others call me by that name, I hear those other names echoing in it. And perhaps that is why my mother chose to name me so.
I remember (did you ever do this?) lying on my bed when I was supposed to be taking a nap and saying my name over and over to myself, thinking about the boundaries my name laid out for me. Who I could be. What I had in me. Where I could choose to be going.
|Janice with my mother|
Maybe I would be like Janice, good and gentle and very smart, who listened, who bent down with her soft eyes to talk right to people's faces and who sent tiny little letters in the mail that were barely big enough to hold a stamp. She had a silvery-warm voice that made people calm and she became a pediatrician which probably was what all older sisters did, also she laughed with her lips together which was a skill I would sometimes try to practice to see how it was done. She lived in Bowling Green with a wooden screen door that slammed satisfyingly and outside there were fireflies and the soft sense of rain all summer long and then she moved to Seattle which seemed like a very nice idea because there she had raspberries growing over a wooden fence near her house and a dirt road nearby with daisies and her bearlike bearded husband barbecued salmon while her interesting, soft-spoken children read Superman comic books that told the original backstory on the planet of Krypton.
|Marilyn with my mother|
Or what if I could be like Marilyn, outrageously funny and never afraid, friends with everyone all over the world in all the different places that she lived, who made the light in the room brighter the moment she came in. She could do an impression of a lighthouse and of an eggbeater and she sang better than anyone, plus she had beautiful long fingers with pretty nails. When I was little I thought she was going to marry a tiger (Taggart) which seemed rather daring but pretty exciting. That was the same year Santa came to visit a park near where I lived (maybe it was Highland Park) in a helicopter and tossed candy and prizes down. I couldn't catch one which was disappointing but then she found a real elf who gave her a candy cane and she didn't eat it herself but brought it to me. She painted murals and portraits of her children who were all boys (at that point) and all funny and fearless and she was also an artist who made things out of clay like dolls that weren't to play with but were old ladies sitting on a bench with stockings down around their ankles feeding birds out of the wrinkled cup of their hands. And when she and my mother got together they would laugh so hard they would begin to cry.
|Mary Luella with my mother|
Maybe I couldn't do that life all the way though, because I was awfully quiet and got embarrassed, but how about Mary Luella, who was the heart of love and so everyone loved her? She grew up in Old Mexico where it was so hot they kept their milk in a large crock inside the well and once she bent down to sip up some cream but the tip of the lavender bow on her dress dipped into the crock and she couldn't figure out how her mother knew she had stolen it. But she became honest later though she was so poor even before they were chased back to the United States and once when she went into the big city of Colonia Juarez there was a beautiful pair of silk stockings at the store, just out on the counter without a shopkeeper standing guard. Her friend told her they were free samples and though she didn't completely believe her she snatched a pair and took them home -- but then when she wore them to church she felt terrible and could never wear them again, which seemed a hopeful kind of story of attainable virtue that was something I could do. On the other hand she was so industrious when she grew up and married a railroad man that she went out and swept her grassless yard every morning until she could get flowers growing and she was so clean and so good at fixing things that the landlords over and over could raise the rent much higher than she could afford to pay after she lived there just a little while. But I thought it might be nice to learn to play the harmonica so when my grandchildren came to visit me I could sit up in bed if they were scared with my knees making a tent of the sheets and play "How Great Thou Art" with a lonely but comforting sound.
|Mary Ann with her daughter Mary Luella (lower right)|
And her mother Mary Ann was very brave and good at helping her mother, which I was, too. When she was an eight-year old she and her parents and brothers and sisters pushed a handcart across the plains to their new mountain home. Her mother whose name was Eliza became snowblind from looking at the snow for so many hours and so Mary Ann held her mother's hand and helped her walk along the path and never stopped. She was a little girl but stubborn enough to survive even when her father died after he caught a cold while guarding their camp at night and then it became pneumonia and they had to bury him in frozen ground so hard they had to chop at it to make a hole. I wasn't sure when I would have a chance to be exactly that brave but I did like to walk and I would like holding my mom's hand if she needed me to, all day long while we walked along and walked and walked until we came to the valley-O.
|Mary the mother|
|Martha and her sister Mary|
And Mary Magdalene who liked learning things and didn't like to do the dishes, but Jesus loved her anyway and she loved him, too, and washed his feet with her hair and was brave enough to face the soldiers and come back with her sweet-smelling spices to take care of his body and so she got to be the first to see him walking in the garden outside his tomb. I heard those Marys' stories, too, and they seemed to be part of my name and part of the same family whose stories I heard from my mother, snuggling under the blanket as she sat on the side of my bed or eavesdropping on her side of phone conversations with her mother or listening at the table as my mother and her sisters talked and laughed until they cried.
|Marilyn, my mom, Janice, their brother Dex|
My mother was the middle sister and I always felt that my name was a valentine she made for the sisters she loved and had to leave to become my mother, for her grandma who died a little while before I was born. A little birthday candle my mother shone back into the place she stepped out of when she broke out of her natal home to start the home that would be mine. A little flower she planted beside the bridge to scent both sides of divide, saying to the mothers up ahead, "Here is another one of us," and saying to me, "Hurry. You can catch up. You belong right over here with us."