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.

Frances

I don’t know how old I was when I realized.

I hated it.

My name.

In kindergarten, I didn’t even know it was my name.

My teacher, Mrs. Brown, called the roll:

“Frances?…Frances?”

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

Sitting there at my tiny desk, I blinked: “No. I’m Fran.”

Such an illustrious beginning to my academic career.

Nobody called me by it much, except my aunts. My mother’s sisters. “Frrrraaanncessss,” they’d say, rather posh, although they weren’t. They were a colorful blend of heavy smoker and ribald raconteur. With looonnnnnnnnnng Carolina drawls.

My father used it when he was angry: “Fran-CES!” —Yeah, the emphasis on that last syllable, utterly ominous.

Nobody else in school had my name. Lots of Debbies, Dianes, Jennifers, Kellys, Sherrys, Angies, even a Charlene or two. There were names that felt like poetry to me: Vonda, Monica and Erica (twins), and Lawandra. Even a girl with a Hawaiian name: Leilani. Gorgeous.

Not my name. It was popular in, like, 1894.

When my reading group was learning about spoof in fifth grade, the teacher allowed the three of us to illustrate it to the class. My spoof: I had legally changed my name. To Diane or Debbie or something (can’t quite recall). Something that blended in much better and was much cuter.

The class didn’t buy it. There was no escaping.

Many of the kids couldn’t even get it right. “Hey, France,” they’d cheerfully greet me.

I glared at them, responding though clenched teeth: “It is Frances, or it is Fran. Not France. I am not a country.”

Early on (sometime after kindergarten, anyway) I learned that I’d been named for my paternal grandmother, Ruby Frances, whom I loved long before my memory ever kicked in. She remains, to this day, my life’s single greatest influence and guiding force. I never wanted to be away from her. We treasured every moment we had together throughout her long years. Grandma was named for her father, Francis. She adored him, always spoke of him with great affection and admiration. She saved a wooden jewelry box he gave her during the Depression. It is mine, now. She cherished my being her namesake; my love for her and this generational legacy were the only saving grace I could find in my name.

It was problematic on another count. The pharmacy couldn’t spell it right on prescription labels: Francis. Did the world at large not understand that the feminine spelling is with an e? I felt like chucking those little orange bottles through the window.

But then I learned a couple of things. The name means free. Or, one who is from France. Interesting that I discovered this while taking French in middle school, where the class got to choose French names. I was Renée. Spoken from the throat.

“Hey, Grandma, did you know the name Frances means one who is from France?”

“It does? I loved taking French in school.”

“You took French?”

“Oh, yes. I thought it was such a beautiful language.”

My DNA tests now tell me there’s a dollop of French ancestry. Not hard to guess which side passed it down. Although my father told me I should be taking Spanish instead because it’s more practical. He was right, alas…but I loved French and studied it until I had dreams fully narrated en français.

Funny how my elementary classmates used to call me France.

Then there was the little group of Spanish-speaking girls in my first teaching job, one of whom grabbed my badge across the reading table and sounded out my first name: Fran. “Great job!” I said. “That’s really my nickname. It’s short for Frances.”

“Ooooooo,” said my little student, “that sounds like princess.”

I never, ever would have thought of that, even though I knew Princess Diana’s middle name was… Frances. Even though I wore my hair in a Princess Diana bob for several years. My hat in yesterday’s post is an artifact of those days.

Was there a poetic quality to my name, after all?

And, even though I’m not Catholic, a statue of St. Francis of Assisi stands by my front steps. Patron saint of animals, always depicted with birds, which are often in my dreams and blog posts, for they speak to me each day. In their own bird languages, that is.

So it’s only taken a few decades but I’ve grown into my name. I cling to the legacy of it, have come to hear the musicality in it, even in all its variations. Except, perhaps, for Fanny.

Ahem. Moving on…

My favorite of all, from my granddaughter: Franna.

Now, that’s gorgeous.

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approachOn Day 6, I am writing around a word beginning with letter f. Figured I might as well write around my name… a fun way of inspiring more stories from your life is brainstorming words and phrases that somehow describe you, that also begin with the first letter of your first name:

My grandfather, St. Patrick

Columbus St. Patrick

Columbus St. Patrick Brantley, circa 1924-1925, age 18 or 19.

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.

“S?”

“Yes.”

“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.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer