Thursday, September 4, 2014

To Belong to a Name

In the post before this one, I talked about the challenges I've faced, inwardly speaking, due to my having a unique last name in my family.  That is, nobody else in my whole entire family, shared my last name with me.  Not even my parents.  When my wife became my relative through marriage, she was the first relative to share my name, and our children are the first blood relatives to share it.  For the nearly three decades of my life up until then, I was alone in bearing my name.  

In the other post about this I ended up speaking more heavily about the anxieties about keeping the name alive, a name that began with me, at least insofar as it belonged in my family, and therefore a name that I didn't want to see die out as suddenly as it had begun.  And it led me into some theological territory about time and eternity.  It's a rich topic, and I'm glad to have had a personal subject from which to segue into it.  But there's more than that to the inner challenge I faced because of my having a name that no one else in my family did.  There's a topic more personal than that.

I felt, on some level, that I didn't fully belong to anyone.  I felt that I belonged with my family, so don't get me wrong, but I was not claimed by their identity.  There was no symbol--and a name is a very powerful symbol--to mark me as belonging to them.  If you'd asked me and my parents for our names, you would have no reason to think that my parents weren't just close relatives but not necessarily my parents.  

It also meant that I didn't feel like I had an identity that extended beyond me.  A family name can give a child a sense of connection with an entire world of relatives besides himself.  No, it's more than that.  I had the sense of connection.  But the child whose own surname is a family name can also grasp a sense of identification with those relatives in a way that I never could.   "Great Grandpa, from Dad's stories, was a Malone (I just like that name, it has no relation to me whatsoever)!  So am I!  I'm like him!"  Yes, there was none of that for me.  There is not one relative of mine, who was a relative prior to my marriage, of whom I could say, "he/she is an X, and so am I!"  

Perhaps this is taking my words too literally.

This was hard on me, even though it would take me years to realize how hard.  Looking back on it, it was a reminder, however subconsciously, that I didn't know my biological father the way other kids did. Nor did anyone ever even suggest to me that it might be nice to change my last name to that of either my Grandmother or the man who helped her raise me (these are folks I knew as "Mom and Dad," and if not for clarity's sake I'd be calling them that here too, and make no mistake they were wonderful to me), so in a sense no one put that legal "seal" on me that said "You're mine."  Now I'm not saying this in resentment.  In my family, not much stock was put into legal realities and things that might have been considered mere formalities.  I have no doubt that my parents sincerely believed it didn't matter what my name was, that I would feel a sense of belonging just because they loved me, even if I shared a name with no one.

And to some extent, they were right about that.  I did know, due to the love we all shared, that I belonged among these wonderful, caring, and loving people who were my parents.  But what they had overlooked--and I am open to the thought that anyone could have easily made the same oversight--is that a sense of belonging to people who love me and a sense of having an identity that belongs to and is shared by people who love me are two different things.  I had the former, in spades.  But the latter?  No.  I felt "special," but in a way that was somewhat lonely.  I was unlike any of my Grandmother's other grandchildren.  They all, down to the last, shared names in common with both of their parents.  Even those whose parents divorced, it just so happens that to this day (or in the case of my birth mother, until the day she died) their mothers have kept the names of their fathers, and both have shared these names with their children.

Now that I'm grown, it would feel artificial to get my name changed.  And besides, to what would I change it?  My Grandmother's last name?  The name of the man who raised me by her side?  The name of my birth mother?  The name of my biological father?  Whose name would I choose?  A very good case could be made for at least three of them (I'm not telling which three), but in each of those cases I could cause people on all sides to think that I wasn't being grateful enough to the people whose names I didn't choose, and this offense could be especially grave because all of my parents are dead, meaning their blessed memories have become rightly "sacred."

And even besides all that, my wife rather likes my last name, and is rather content to keep it.

Rule# 9428 of Happy Marriages:
Never spring a surprise last name onto your wife AFTER marrying her.
I'm sure people have tried to obtain annulments for less!

I don't really have any answers, here.  I know the "right" answer.  I generally do, after all:  I'm Catholic, and there's a right answer spelled out for me for precisely 989,824,932 different highly-complex and specific situations, including this one, because the Vatican is crazy-prepared that way...

...okay, but seriously:  I know that the "obvious" Christian answer would appear to be that I should find my identity and my sense of belonging with God, and with my brothers and sisters in Christ.  I also know that the obvious "hallmark special" type of answer would be to get over myself, climb up onto the nearest balcony, and declare, with dreamy eyes and a wistful tone, "What's in a name?!" and ever after insist that my having shared my last name with  no one in my family in no way diminished my sense of belonging or identity.  And both of those "obvious" answers may be true.  I don't deny the validity of those propositions, because I'm not prepared to reject them as unrealistic.  

But I am prepared to say that, for me, it's not that simple.  Maybe for my brain it is, maybe even for my soul it is, but not for my heart.  I don't know why.  I know that I belong to God, just as I know that I belong to my family, and I even know that I belong to my friends.  But for some reason, some reason that I cannot just wish away or write off, I can't help but look at those--many of my relatives among them--who share their names with their families of origin, with their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, and think to myself:  "Wouldn't it be nice?"

And maybe that's okay.  Because there's another Christian answer that's not always so obvious, but a great deal more "real" than any platitude:  I can entrust this vague-but-recurrent sorrow to my Lord and Savior, not out of some hope that He will magically make it disappear (He could, but that's often not how He operates) but knowing that He will hold me as I mourn it, as He holds us when we mourn all things that we cannot change, from the trivial to the enormous.

Amen, Lord.  My heart, soul, and identity, I commend them all to Thee.  As long as I am Thine, I belong...

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