Sunday, January 27, 2013

What's In a Name?

Lisa was not a popular name in 1955. The commonly heard girls names of the time were Susan, Barbara, Linda and Mary-Anything. Mary Anne, Mary Ellen, Mary Beth, Mary Pat. This was especially true in my Roman Catholic universe where the Sisters of Mercy (sometimes known as the Sisters of NO Mercy) insisted upon calling each of us at Saint Edward the Confessor Elementary School by our full Christian names.

One fine day in 1961, when I was a first grader there, the school principal, Sister Mary Sebastian entered our classroom. All 50 (yes fifty!!!) of us stood immediately, intoning in unison, "Good MORNING Sister. God BLESS you Sister." Our teacher, a sweet young nun named Sister Mary Lourdette, had been reading us a story about Jesus telling his disciples to let all the children come to him so he could hug them and play with them. Now she stepped back from her desk with respect and fear.

"Sit down class," Sister Sebastian said sternly, nodding to Sister Mary Lourdette and motioning us down with a red, rough calloused hand (which we all thought was due to frequent smacking of sinful children). "Today we are going to learn about our names, their meanings and the saints for whom we are all named."

We went row by alphabetical row, starting with the twins Janet and John Blake and down through the Thomas's, Timothy's, Martha's and Mary's. Each classmate was told the root meaning of her/his name and a brief synopsis of the life of their wonderful patron saint.

It was my turn. "My name is Lisa, Sister," I said, loud and proud. Sister frowned. Then she brightened. "Lisa is NOT a Christian name," she said, a little too smugly. "It is a nickname for Elizabeth, the blessed cousin of Mary-the-mother-of-God and the saintly mother of John the Baptist. Your real name is Elizabeth."

Triumphant that she had set me straight, Sister moved on to Patricia Nevlin, seated behind me. I was in shock. All these years (I was six) I had been duped. My name was not Lisa, but Elizabeth. I went home that day in angry tears.

"Why didn't you tell me?" I demanded of my mother who was waiting for me with milk and cupcakes. She was silent a moment. Then she said evenly, "Sister is wrong. Your name is Lisa. We gave you the most beautiful name we could think of. I will make sure Sister knows this."

And she did.

Sunday, January 13, 2013


The first thing I noticed was her height -- or lack thereof. Five-foot-nothing, a compact steam engine of quiet energy that tended to spread like warm maple syrup, coating and penetrating everyone lucky enough to enter her sphere.

She had the thickest, spikiest black hair I had ever seen, compliments of her Mexican parents, her black/brown eyes mostly danced, but could flash when Scorpio sensibilities were threatened.

Her babies, they arrived on a parallel track to mine, all looking like tiny versions of their mom. The image in my head that always pushes its way to the front is of this tiny woman, sitting amid an unruly nest of toys and picture books, reading from one of them to whatever flock of children were nearby. "They wanted a story," she said, smiling up into my impatience, apologizing for the forgotten re-organization task she had begun. Who could argue with those eyes, and those small surrounding heads all leaning in to see the pictures?

She had a sense of order that was cloaked in chaos. Toys on the floor, groceries too -- forgotten in front of the refrigerator door, ice cream melting in its carton while she was off tending to one of her, or my little ones. I got annoyed sometimes -- with the mess, the noise. But even as I grumbled and fussed, she made me a nice steaming Bustelo and rubbed my hand -- the one I had injured in the car door.

The upstairs bedroom had a crooked tar-paper balcony, and on hot Queens nights we would take sleeping bags and children and lie out there naming the stars. When we each moved away and after years apart, she was still there, right there in every phone call -- and when we visited, my almost-grown kids fell into a familiar comfortable stride with hers -- and her.

Still short, hair now a steely grey, the smile creases around those dancing eyes seem so very appropriate. These days she relishes her new incarnation as grandma, her daughter, the one I nursed alongside my own son when her mother's breast infection raged, has given her one more baby to love. Her dancing eyes continue to find music in everyday miracles, thought the flash still appears from time to time.

I haven't seen her in a long time. We message each other, but way too much time has escaped our accounts in the being apart. Come. Stop. Sit. Tell me a story, please.