Thursday, March 27, 2008

My Name

One summer, home from college, I worked as a secretary for a private real estate agent, typing letters and answering the phone at his office in his condominium. One day, sitting at my desk while he conducted business in the other room, I overheard him talking on the phone with a client, saying something about "a lease," repeating it over and over with increasing loudness and exasperation. Finally, scowling, he stormed out to me, asking why I wouldn't answer him when he called my name.

On the other hand, whenever I hear someone say the phrase "at least," I look up like a startled deer....

More often than not, I'm called something else -- Alice, Louise, Elsie. Ah, yes, Elsie, which should really be my name, for all the times I've been called that, on the phone or at the doctor's office, the "i" and the "s" getting transposed at a glance. I even remember, once in fifth grade, back when Elsie the Cow appeared on cartons of Borden's milk, being mooed at by a group of boys as I walked past. After 48 years of being called Elsie, I've stopped correcting people and now just say "Yes?"

Elsie or Elise, I could never find my name in the carousel of bicycle name-plates at the hardware store, turning and turning it while my father searched for tools, staring into the whir of white and red, but never seeing myself in that space between Elaine and Elizabeth. In a world of regular names, I didn't exist, and it wasn't until high school that I met another one of "me." We became instant friends -- sisters, really -- having found each other like the only two humans on a distant planet.

My fraternal twin sister, Ann, could very well have been the one with the name problem. Back in 1959, before the use of ultrasound, my mother expected to give birth to only one child, so when two of us emerged, five minutes apart, the one name my parents had chosen (Elise Ann, or was it Ann Elise?) was split in two, each of us getting half. I believe my parents divided the name at random, but somehow it all made sense. My sister, Ann -- decisive and defined, more consonant than vowel -- is her name. And I -- who still don't know what I want to be when I grow up -- match my own vowel-heavy iambic name that sounds like it's forever pausing, unable to decide, or, as a friend once described, as though it's forever trailing off.

How did my parents know? How -- two similar, crying babies looking up at them -- did they get it right? Does the name shape us? Or, as we live, do we gather our name around us like a skin and mold it to ourselves, to what we already are? Who would I be if, that day in the hospital, I'd been given my sister's name, and vice-versa? (Would I desire to only drink one shot-glass of Bailey's Irish Cream per decade? Would she own too many dogs?)

Just yesterday, my daughter pointed out to me a school-mate named Elise, and lately I've noticed that the name has become a lot more common. Why do I feel a little funny about that, as though, after 48 years of wearing this name and all its confusions, I've somehow earned the sole right to it? Maybe in the next few years the name Elise will finally makes its way into the carousel of bicycle name-plates. I'm sure, though, they'll spell it with a "y"....

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