My Name was Supposed to be Elizabeth Ann

— Stories from the Roads (Not) Taken

To give a thing a name, a label, a handle; to rescue it from anonymity, to pluck it out of the Place of Namelessness, in short to identify it—well, that’s a way of bringing the said thing into being.

— Iff to Haroun in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories

This is the story my mother told me:

A few weeks before their due dates, my twenty-three-year-old (almost) mother chatted long-distance with her friend, Dorothy, whom she met at Fort Bragg. After Uncle Sam drafted their baby-faced husbands and shipped them off to Vietnam, Dorothy returned to Ohio and my mother to Philadelphia, where she lived with my father’s family while awaiting my birth. My mother tells me the friendship was a source of comfort despite their geographic distance. Though both women were surrounded by family, each felt an isolation that only the other could understand. Which partly explains why my mother never told Dorothy how angry and hurt she was by what happened next. Dorothy, who hadn’t decided on baby names as of that conversation, delivered her daughter first and named her Elizabeth Ann–the name my mother had reluctantly revealed she had always intended for her own child.  

So I became Michele Elizabeth. Michele with one L. Remember that. It’s important.

*****

In Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories–a wonderful book, by the way. You should read it–Haroun’s father Rashid, a professional storyteller, “[runs] out of stories to tell” after his wife runs off with the neighbor. Iff the Water Genie reluctantly agrees to help  Haroun reconnect Rashid’s access to Story Water, the magical source of Rashid’s extraordinary gift, and tells him to select their means of transport. “Pick a bird…any bird,” Iff insists, which makes no sense to Haroun. They’ve met accidentally in a houseboat bathroom, and the only bird Haroun sees is a wooden peacock bed, incapable of flight.

“Iff [gives] a snort of disgust. ‘A person may choose what he cannot see,’ he [says], as if explaining something very obvious to a very foolish individual. ‘A person may mention a bird’s name even if the creature is not present and correct: crow, quail, hummingbird, bulbul, mynah, parrot, kite. A person may even select a flying creature of his own invention, for example winged horse, flying turtle, airborne whale, space serpent, aeromouse. To give a thing a name, a label, a handle; to rescue it from anonymity, to pluck it out of the Place of Namelessness, in short to identify it—well, that’s a way of bringing the said thing into being. Or, in this case, the said bird or Imaginary Flying Organism.’”

The Genie opens his fist, and Haroun’s “eyes almost [fall] out of his head.” Creatures smaller than fingernails cavort on Iff’s palm.

Names, you see, are magic.

*****

Here is another story:

When I was four and my brother was three, my mother told us we would be getting a new big brother and sister. The details arise in my memory like photographs looping through a slideshow. Me seated at my play table behind the front door, Barbie on my lap. Philip sprawled on the floor pushing a truck. My mother, hair headbanded and looking equal parts flustered and severe. My father is absent, though he could not have been. The doorbell rings. The dogs scamper and bark. A matronly social worker enters with two children. Share, Mom had told me and Philip. And be nice. So I ask my new big sister if she wants to play Barbies.

Her name is Michelle, with two Ls.

*****

Big Michelle sticks.

Little Michele does not.

I become Michele Elizabeth, all one word. Micheluhlizabeth. Then Elizabeth, but only within the family. Not in school, not among my friends, never at work. I meet my husband and tell him, I’m Michele. People who know these stories ask, Why didn’t you change your name? Surely it was confusing, a sister with the same name? How on earth did you manage?

By a P2C2E. A Process Too Complicated to Explain. This is Iff’s answer to all of Haroun’s impossible questions, and it is partly the answer to my own. Truthfully, part of me did not acknowledge the chaos.

Most of me delighted in it.

*****

The summer I meet my new big sister, the six of us, our two dogs and a turtle travel to Ohio, where I meet Elizabeth Ann. A year or two later, her family travels to Philadelphia. Eventually, our families lose touch. Why, my mother does not recall. Nor do I recall much about the girl. She was nice enough and had brownish hair. 

Now, I wonder whether she knows the story of her name. Whether her mother knows that in stealing from my mother, she magicked a unique landscape for my childhood.

*****

My name was supposed to be Elizabeth Ann.

I’m glad it’s not.

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