“You know the name you were given,
you do not know the name that you have.”
~ Jose Saramago, All the Names
My mother had many names, one of which was given to her by the Tiwi people of Melville Island, off the northern edge of Australia, in the East Timor Sea.
During her time on the island, she formed a women’s weaving group, since the old art of basketmaking was being lost. So they gave her the name Miradinga, which is the Tiwi word for the pandanus palm, used for making baskets.
The woman who gave my mother her Tiwi name was called Eileen.
This, of course, was not the name she was born with. A British schoolteacher renamed her along with thousands of Aboriginal children from the so-called “Stolen Generation” – those who were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools to be “re-educated”.
During my mother’s stay on the island, a family asked her to adopt one of their children, Anita, since they knew the opportunities my mother would be able to provide her in America.
But my mother was young, unmarried, and too aware of the emotional and spiritual risks of taking Anita away from homeland. So Anita stayed on the island, and Mom moved back to the States.
I grew up hearing about Eileen and Anita, Foggerty and Deaf Tommy. These people were just names to me, but fortunately, before she died, Mom and I dug through her old slides to find a few fading faces to give life to the names…
My mother’s given name was Jacqueline, after her father, Jacob.
Her maiden name was Aipperspach – German for ‘little running brook.’
When she married my father, she struggled – should she give up her name and take his? She did, becoming Jacqueline Lefton.
The story of Lefton is one of shifting identities too. Initially Lefkovits, when the family fled Hungary before WWII, they changed their name to Lefco, then to Lefton – in the process removing all traces of Jewishness.
Mom’s parents did not give her a middle name. But in her thirties, she received one from an elderly Persian man of great faith and learning:
“Your name,” he said, “is Tahirih.”
Tahirih means ‘the pure one.’ It is also the name of one of history’s great heroines: In 19th century Iran, Tahirih refused to be veiled and stood up for the right of all women to be educated.
This, in her own way, was my mother too – she cared for the unseen and unheard in society.
My father called her ‘Anis,’ which means Companion.
And I, of course, knew her by one name only: Mom.
So my mother, who came into this world with no name at all, left with at least seven.
I began to wonder: What does it mean, to name someone?
Naming can be a gift of acceptance and new beginnings.
It can also cause a violent loss of identity.
Naming something can give it power.
It can also remove its mystery and take away its power.
Naming is an act of definition, declaration. I am This.
But if it comes from the outside, it can also be an act of confinement and limitation. You are That.
Naming makes the unknown known – but only partially. For a name can conceal as much as it reveals. It is only a hint, a clue to the inner mystery.
In Islam, it is said that God has ninety-nine names, each a facet of the divine essence. So a name is the robe that shelters and honours the essence.
The wrong name can be as degrading as an ill-fitting suit of clothes – worse, perhaps, than no clothes at all. Besides, if you have no name, you are still given one. You are called “Anonymous.”
And think of all the wisdom attributed to Anonymous!
There is great freedom but also great loss associated with being Anonymous. You gain the power to say anything and not be held accountable. But you lose recognition and singularity.
I think we are all anonymous for most of our lives, even to those we know best. I think of my mother – did I really know her? Did I really see her?
Only when we are truly seen can we be truly named.
The real test, of course, is to see yourself clearly.
And then to give yourself a name.
For my Mother,
1 June 1951 – 20 Aptil 2010