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.

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