On a small family farm in Beaufort County, North Carolina, in late September of 1906, my great-grandmother had her fifth of ten children. Her previous children were named Franklin, James, William Hosea, and Penelope (not pronounced pe-nel-o-pee, mind you, but pen-a-lope, rhyming with cantaloupe). Thankfully the girl was called Penny, which the family spelled Peaney.
This new son was named Columbus St. Patrick.
We do not know why.
He wasn’t born on March 17th.
The family wasn’t Catholic; they were Baptists and Methodists.
Legend has it that a great-great ancestor came over from Ireland, but this isn’t evident in the family tree roots running deep in North Carolina and Virginia to the 1700s. In fact, as Columbus St. Patrick grew up, his southern dialect carried traces of Elizabethan English: He pronounced his brothers’ middle names as Acey and Hosey – that’s Asa and Hosea – and a neighbor’s name as Miss Etter, which I believed was spelled that way until I saw it on her mailbox: Etta.
His middle name troubled him.
I became fascinated by names around the age of five. My own given name is in honor of my grandmother, Ruby Frances. I asked her: “What’s Granddaddy’s middle name?”
“It’s just S,” Grandma replied.
“How can a name be S? That is just a letter.”
“It’s an initial. He had his name changed to an S.”
I didn’t know anyone could do that. Your name is your name; it’s who you are.
Grandma went on: “It’s S because his middle name was St. Patrick and it bothered him his whole life, so he changed it.”
Even as a preschooler who knew nothing of Saint Patrick yet, I felt a pang at this. What a magical-sounding name. Strange, but pretty.
Later that day I crawled into his lap and in the blunt way of children, asked: “Granddaddy, why did your mother name you St. Patrick?”
Granddaddy shook his head, briefly drawing a hand over his face as if to brush the thought away.
“I have no ideer,” he replied, sighing.
Those who did know were already long gone.
When St. Patrick’s Day rolls around, of course I think of Granddaddy. He was St. Patrick. He was a man of faith and a man of the earth, a farmer; Saint Patrick is depicted holding a cross and a shamrock. Saint Patrick sailed on ships in the fifth century; his namesake built them in World War II. Columbus St. Patrick spent his life serving others, putting their needs ahead of his own, always a compass for doing what is right, what is good.
The venerated saint is said to have driven the snakes out of Ireland. I recall Granddaddy killing copperheads with a hoe on the dirt road of his country home when I was a child. When he grew too old to manage the hoe, he simply grabbed his shotgun and that was it for the copperheads. No harm was going to come to his own, not on his watch.
“Never kill a black snake,” he told me. “They keep rats and mice away.”
I suppose it would not do for North Carolina to be rid of all snakes.
Today I celebrate my heritage as do many others, but I suspect very few can say they are St. Patrick’s granddaughter.