Last time I wrote about first names. Those given to us. The ones parents wish upon their children.
But there’s the other kind of name that is distinctly not given, yet is, at the same time, a given. It’s the one we inherit automatically, because it belongs to our forebears – our family name.
I think I understood at a young age that last names were sort of etched in stone. Not like first and middle names that were often subject to alteration: like nicknames, or being called “Junior”, or just initials, such as B.J., etc. Last names were more serious and more permanent. An exception being the fourth grade playmate who told me her father officially changed their family name from “Bonesack.” But short of resorting to legal measures, our last names just are what they are.
And for the most part, as a child, I was content with my family name: Burns. One syllable. Easy to pronounce. Easy to spell. Given to little teasing. There was the occasional kid who would come up to me and sing the line “…and it burns, burns, burns…,” but since my family didn’t listen to country music, it would be years before I knew that was from Johnny Cash’s hit song, “Ring of Fire.”
Content, I was. That is, until I met her. She was one of several new kids introduced to my second grade classroom, but none of the others bore last names with such cachet: Jewel. Hers was to die for! Oh, the imagery it conjured! ‘Twas nothing short of dreamy. I recall wishing my last name could be one and the same as hers. A name that would bring to mind tiaras, chokers and solitaires. I mean, a name like that would surely stand its ground with the likes of Tiffany or Cartier!
Mrs. Fisher had assigned alphabetical seating to her students, so my desk wasn’t at all close to Miss Jewel’s. But I desperately wanted to get to know this new girl. I must have thought she was akin to royalty by virtue of having such a fabulous name. During recess, I bee-lined it over to where she was playing, eager to work my way into her good graces. My tactics apparently succeeded because she and I became friends and would spend a lot of time together. Since she didn’t live near my house, we needed special permission to arrange play times after school. My mom said I could invite her over, and she was allowed. We had a ball together, so she came over several more times. I considered it great fun to go to other kids’ homes and play with their toys, so naturally, I expressed my desire to visit her house. But she demurred each time I brought it up. This confused me.
Then, all of a sudden, the good times ended; Miss Jewel left our school.
Her disappearance also confused me. It may have been a new job or an extended family crisis that precipitated this sudden withdrawal from school. But I have since wondered, as an adult, if maybe alcoholism or substance abuse might have been involved. Or domestic violence. Or grinding poverty. Having an incarcerated parent will also create chaos in a household and keep a child from letting other kids “in.”
There were things about my mom’s demeanor when my little friend visited our home that caused me to suspect there was something different about her. It wasn’t anything Mom actually said or did, and I wouldn’t be able to put a finger on it, but her empathy was palpable. Mom may have, on the phone with my friend’s mother, perhaps, picked up on indications this girl was walking a rocky road. But I never figured it out. Probably because I never probed. She was simply my friend and we had fun together.
I currently have friends who are part of the recovery movement. They share the pain of never having been able to invite friends over because they never knew if a parent would be drunk when they walked in the door. Since they couldn’t risk having their friends see the shame of how they really lived, they never, ever invited friends to their homes. Through absolutely no fault of their own, many children find themselves in circumstances that, nevertheless, visit real shame upon them. Some will, with years of demanding emotional work and/or therapy experience a healing of this shame.
Whenever I think about my friend I’m always sad our relationship didn’t last longer. I really liked her. But whenever I think about my friend I’m always glad that her fancy name drew me into cultivating a friendship that I can only hope communicated acceptance and respect. And maybe provided respite from whatever she may have been otherwise dealing with.
Be well, my long ago friend, wherever you are.