My namesake

At school we are doing a lot of name-related things.  Learning each others names, talking about why it is important to know each others name, why it is important to learn each others names, why it’s important for us to learn our students’ names, and why it’s important for them to learn each others.  Whew, it’s a lot of thinking about names.  

Learning each others names is a part of creating effective conditions for learning. 

Last week, at our 12-hour-long retreat, we did an exercise where we talked with a partner about what their name is and where it came from.  Last week I told my partner that I was named for my maternal grandmother without much elaboration.

Today in class we read pages 10 and 11 of The House on Mango Street.

Esperanza talks about her name.  She talks about the weight it holds for her as her grandmother’s name (given the legacy of her grandmother’s life), the meaning her name has in different cultures, and how she feels about when people say her name at school.  She says she would like to baptize herself under a new name.

I never felt that strongly about changing my name, nor did I feel that it created a burden for me.  It was my grandmother’s name.


I was extremely close with my grandmother as a child.  She died when I was thirteen.  I always knew she was special.  She wasn’t just special because she was my grandmother.  She was special because even as a child I knew she was a maverick.  I knew she had in a way abandoned my mother (even though my mother was nearly 20 by the time the abandonment took place) and her other four grown children and that she had fled Memphis, Tennessee first for Ibiza before settling in a small town in Provence.  She was in her late 50s or early 60s.  This was in the 1960’s.  She only moved back to the United States in the mid 80’s under duress.  She had fallen several times in her rural farm-house dwelling and my parents compelled her to come.  She came, but you could smell her sense of rebellion and of inconoclasm.  One of my favorite memories, which is not a single memory, but rather a memory of a series of events, a habit even, is of us both waking up at around 4AM.  I’d go into her room and crawl into bed with her.  It would still be dark out and we would read our books.


A month ago I was in New York City doing a program call Schools Attuned through the organization All Kinds of Minds.  The weather was hot and our classes were long, from approximately 8AM to 5PM.  After a long day of class I saw that I had a voice mail from an unknown number in the 973 (New Jersey) area code.

The woman identified herself as a relative of my mother’s who needed my mother’s updated contact information (my parents moved in March this year).  I gave my mother the woman’s number and forgot about it a little.

My mother later explained that the woman in New Jersey was a cousin of hers.  She had called about an inheritance.  My great-great aunt set up a trust.  It was to provide for her children, their children, and so forth.


In my grandmother’s time, she was scheduled to benefit significantly from the trust, as were her siblings.  

In 1927 my grandmother, at the age of 20, determined to marry a man her family didn’t like.  In fact, her family determined that he was below her.  They forbade her to marry him.  She went ahead with it, and when she did, her sister (somehow had the power and managed to) orchestrated a reduction in my grandmother’s portion of the trust.

As a result of the Depression, the trust declined, as did my family’s overall financial state.

My mother was born in 1945, the youngest of four children: two boys, two girls.  

In 1949, my mother’s father, the man my grandmother’s family never wanted her to marry, died suddenly in the bathtub.  He was known to drink.

After her father died, my mother grew up in an Italianate villa-style mansion in Memphis, owned by her grandfather.  But the family had little money.  My grandmother was forced to work.  The family also relied on monthly checks from the old trust, sent from the Northern Trust Company, which was always a bit of a joke, since they were Southerners.  The money was less than my grandmother’s siblings got (who had also made more financially advantageous marriages), but it was still something.  Although the extra money was valuable to their existence, it wasn’t significant, and my mother and her siblings never expected to see anything from the old Northern Trust.

I’ve known all this, in more or less detail, for a long time. 


The reason the relative from New Jersey called, it turned out, was to put my mother in touch with the Northern Trust Company.  Apparently, a few people had died without heirs, which resulted in an inheritance for my mother, made only slightly more significant because her two eldest siblings are no longer living. Fun right?  Free money.  Nice work if you can get it. 


My mother has been staying with me in I’s absence.  She brought the letter from the Northern trust and the bracketed family tree since my great-great aunt, to show me all about our recent windfall. 

We got to talking about the family, my grandmother, the great-aunts and great-uncles, the love, manipulations, tragedies, and fortunes of my family.  I asked a lot of questions and found out a lot about the people who I never got to know.  Since I’ve met I., I’ve been jealous of his Catholic family and their tradition of intense reproduction, and short generations, such that he knew his great-grandparents and great-aunts and uncles and all four of his grandparents are still living.  I. will be 28 in one month.


On the day my grandfather died, when my mother was four, my grandmother had been at the courthouse initiating divorce proceedings.  Her hearing was postponed.  

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