What’s in a name poem

I love the mid-monthly Ethical ELA Open Write for educators. The kickoff for July is hosted today by Mo Daley, who offers the invitation to explore your name, and who you are, through poetry.

I happened to write a post about my name in March: Frances. This morning I rework it here, with a few more layers of meaning…

Early morning
before the dawn
as first birds begin to sing

I light a candle
on my table

I sit
by its wavering halo
to write
about my name.

In the beginning
I didn’t even know
it was my name.

My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Brown, 
called the roll: 
Frances?…Frances?

She finally narrowed her eyes at me: 
Aren’t you Frances?

Sitting before her at a tiny table, I blinked: 
No. I’m Fran.

An inauspicious start
to my academic career.

The first shaky foot
on the lifepath
of learning who I am.

I didn’t love it at first,
my name.

Early on
(sometime after kindergarten,
that is)
Daddy told me
it was after his mother,
Ruby Frances

Grandma

my consummate storyteller
avid letter-writer
daily diarist
devout reader
tireless defender-angel
Grandma

On the day you were born
I stood at the nursery window

and cried.

You looked
like a little angel.

Grandma

My life’s memories
begin in her arms
on her lap
being rocked
in time to the beating of her heart
and the cadence of her voice
singing
Jesus loves me, this I know
or reading reading reading
until I could recite
the rhyming stories
by heart, page by page
long before I went to school

Grandma

who read the entire Bible aloud
several times over
to Granddaddy
who could not read it 
for himself

Grandma

who was named
after her beloved Papa,
Francis

a very religious man

who nevertheless hung himself
on a tree in the woods
in front of her childhood home
when she was just sixteen

Grandma,

I asked, when I was around sixteen,

did you know
that the name Frances
means ‘free’

or ‘one who is from France?’

We talked about it in French class
today

—Does it? I didn’t know.
I loved taking French

—You took French? Really?

—Yes. Such a beautiful language

I didn’t tell her
we got to choose French names
for class
and I chose to be Renée 
without realizing 
that it means born again

or that the kids back in elementary school
could never get our name right:
Hi, France! they’d cheerfully greet me.

I’d grit my teeth:
It is Fran
or Frances.
Not ‘France’.
I am not
a country.

No one else in school
had my name.

It wasn’t cute or popular
since maybe 1886

not to mention
the spelling problem
such as on labels
from the pharmacy:
Francis

Does the world at large
not understand
or care
that the feminine spelling
is with an e?

I wanted to hurl
those little orange bottles
through the window

along with my problematic name

until the day I was teaching
a group of little Spanish-speaking girls
how to read English
and one of them grabbed my badge
to decode my name:
Fran

Very good! That’s really my nickname.
It’s short for Frances.

Ooooo, breathed my little student.
That sounds just like ‘princess’.

In all my years
I’d never thought of that

even though Princess Diana’s middle name
was Frances

and I have to laugh a little now
because Daddy always said
You ought to take Spanish instead of French,
it would be more useful.

He couldn’t have been more right, alas.
He usually was.

I wonder what he’d say now
if he knew my DNA tests
reveal a dollop of French ancestry
that he very likely
passed down…

and as I’ve been writing
the sun has risen
bright and ever-new

a red dragonfly
lands on the little statue of Saint Francis
by my front steps

never minding that I’m not Catholic

nesting birds find sanctuary here
on my porch
along with a host of small creatures
seeking a resting place
even the occasional stray cat in need
for whom I leave fresh water.

The candle’s wavering halo
is invisible now
in the sunlight spilling
through the windows

as I write about my name
this inheritance
I’ve come to treasure
at last

and it just so happens
that the candle’s fancy label says
chèvrefeuille
French for “honeysuckle”

the flower and scent
of happiness
of hardiness
of devotion
and everlasting bonds

like a legacy of love

and unseen angels

that are
always near.

Note on red dragonflies, mentioned also in my most recent post: I’ve seen them for the first time this summer. They’re stunning and in some cultures, considered a sign of the sacred.

5 thoughts on “What’s in a name poem

  1. O.M. Goodness, Fran, this is something. Truly something. I was almost weeping loving every word and line and not wanting it to end. Perfection. You MUST get your poems into a collection and publish. Start with a chapbook if you only have say 30 you feel are the ones you are ready to share or fit or work or whatever but go for the whole thing. I ADORE this poem. I want to shout it and share it and show it to kids, too. The sad stanza would maybe need to be edited out for younger kids if you would not mind that part……but I would have to really read again and consider how it would affect the over-all meaning and strength, BUT for kids to relate to an adult with maybe some of their feelings about their names. And finding the beauty in princess from an ELL……all of it. Words fail me. BUT you don’t. I needed this beauty today. And Renee…..all of it so woven with meaningfulness in your life. And the Grandma!! You were so lucky. My mother taught me to recite the Nursery Rhymes by 20 months old. I was an early talker. I know they helped me as an early reader and writer. You name one, i can say it now in a blink…..such gifts we are given. Have a blessed day, dear Fran, Frances, Renee, wonderous poet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Janet, you’re the most amazing encourager, you truly are. I can see little you learning those nursery rhymes…they really are a wealth of wordplay. I have been contemplating a little collection of poems; the idea is a bit embryonic at the moment, and may end up being more than one idea, but I think I feel a definite shape…I am chuckling at your exchange here with Margaret but both of you are priceless; I’m so grateful for your words – bless you for them.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Janet did a bit of gushing, but she’s not wrong. You are a poet and you have such a wonderful way of writing about yourself that is relatable and makes us want to be you. The repetition of Grandma is effective. It gives us the sense of her importance in your life. I was named for my grandmothers, one I never met whom I always consider my guardian angel. What a great prompt to start off the open write this month!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Margaret: A bit. I knew I was overboard, but I just could not control myself. So glad you agreed!!!! It really is a wonderful poem I want to have a chance to re-read and savor!!!

      Liked by 2 people

    • Janet’s ebullience amazes me! I’m grateful, though, for her positivity and for yours; you always encourage and *inspire*, Margaret! My grandmother is one of the greatest guiding forces of my life, the shared name just one thread of an eternal bond. I miss her; she’s in my thoughts daily. Mostly I am deeply aware of the debt of gratitude I owe her. This story of your name and your grandmother makes me contemplate, yet again, the thinness of the separating veil…for Grandma never feels far away.

      Liked by 1 person

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