What’s in a Name

Last week, somehow, all my morning stars aligned.

While my son slept (in my bed) and my daughter snuggled in her bed (watching a show on my phone), I went downstairs and fixed myself a cup of coffee before settling down in front of the computer.

I was lucky, because minutes before my daughter hijacked my phone I saw the weekly prompt from The Inky Path and was immediately intrigued by the title: Your Name.

social security name

No one was asking me for breakfast – yet. I didn’t have to make lunches – yet. Birds floated gracefully around the feeder outside my office window while I wrote for ten blessed uninterrupted minutes.

Below is the inkling of the prompt (pun intended) and my response. I highly recommend heading over to The Inky Path and signing up for their FREE weekly newsletter and prompt. (They also have fabulous writing classes with reasonable fees. I’m not being compensated for saying such things, I just happen to believe them.)

Tell us about the name, or rather, your name. What is the story of your name? What is your relationship with the name that was given to you at birth? Do you use it as it is or in a shortened version? How has your name affected your life? Who would you have been with a different name? If you had the chance to choose your own name, what would it be?

I was never a big fan of my name. Dana Schwartz. It’s not as bad as my first (and last) Cabbage Patch Doll, Phyllis Hortensia (!), but it just didn’t mean anything. Well, that’s not true. Technically, Dana means from Denmark. But I’m not Danish.

I went through periods as a kid where I wanted to change my name. When I wished my parents had named me something else. Hailey was one of their choices. So was Robin. That was a close call. My father was concerned because he thought I looked a little like a bird when I was born. This was kind of true. He didn’t want anyone to make fun of me. My mom mentioned the name Summer once, and oh, I would’ve loved that. I was born in summer and I adore summer, so it would have fit.

How would my life be different if I were Summer Schwartz? It sounds kind of funny, but then most things do paired with Schwartz.

That’s another non-story. Schwartz was not my great grandfather’s last name. It was given to his family upon arrival at Ellis Island. Their name was Polanska. Too Polish? Too hard to pronounce? They gave them a new name, Schwartz, which means black in German, and that was that. An empty name. A placeholder.

A placeholder for what? A husband? I always considered, despite my feminist leanings, changing my name when I got married. But then I met a lovely man named Steven Plac. His last name is actually pronounced “Platz” in Poland, but here in America, they say, “Plack.” A name reminiscent of tooth decay. Sigh. What a waste.

Despite my husband’s wishes, I chose not to become Dana Plac. But it wasn’t just the sound of the name that made me hesitate, there was another reason I held onto Schwartz. It was my name. It belonged to me. Even though it had no bearing on my cultural background, even though I never liked how it sounded, garbled in the mouth, it was mine. I held it since I was born and giving it up felt like losing something.

Oh, but what about Summer? That sounds like a carefree girl. Someone who is not so uptight or worried or anxious. The kind of name of a girl who takes off her top at parties maybe, after too many drinks? The kind of hippie girl who dances around half naked around bonfires on the beach? Sorry, Summer, maybe you’re not like that. But there are worse things to be than carefree. Maybe it would’ve been nice not to be so damn self-conscious and concerned about what others think. Summer might not have cared. She might have danced right beside the fire and felt the warmth.

I don’t know who I would’ve been if my mom named me Summer. It comes down to mothers, somehow. I think my mother was the one to have the final say. It should be that way. We women do carry the babies. We know them before they emerge, we know about their secret selves.

As a child I held onto the idea that I could change my name. Maybe I could become Summer after all. I told my mother, when I’m 18, I’ll do it. But 18 came and went, oh boy, did it go, and here I am, forty years old, still holding onto my name, Dana. Two syllables, like Summer, but more solid, tethered to the ground, hearty, like a plant that digs in, takes root, and tilts its head toward the sun, feeling the warmth that way.

What do you think of your name? Did you ever consider changing it? I’d love to hear your story in comments.

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Edible Memories: Laughter

Sometimes I leap first.

When my online writing friend Stacey asked me to consider signing up for a 14-day writing group via the Inky Path, my first instinct was to say no. I barely have enough time to work on my novel, not to mention the grief course I’m creating, let alone the safety skills class I’m organizing – oh, and then there’s that whole mother/wife gig, plus my nemesis, the bottomless laundry basket.

But I couldn’t get it out of my mind. A tell-tale sign. As I kept tabs on the rising enrollment, I felt an itch, a twinge, but couldn’t tell if it was a competitive-fear-of-missing-out or the I-need-to-do-this kind of feeling. Looking back, it was probably a little of both.

One week into the Winter Joy Retreat: Edible Memories, and I’m fully immersed. It’s pretty impossible to keep up with the group’s Facebook posts (over 100 people registered, though not all post daily) but I’m trying to hold fast to my own commitment, one writing prompt each day. This isn’t easy – my kids are young and life is full, but I’m delighted to say that – so far at least – I’m making it happen. I’ve always felt like my memory is kind of bad, but each prompt seems to unlock one, two, more scenes in my mind, and I’m taking notes like mad, for both the prompts and the possibility of memoir.

I’d like to share with you my most recent prompt. The theme was Laughter (with an emphasis always on food) yet somehow I managed to turn it around to sadness (just like the character on Inside Out!). But that’s how I’ve always been. Drawn to the bittersweet, both in food and life.

Winter Joy Retreat: Edible Memories

Laughter

Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday. As a kid we took turns having it at our house, but after my mother’s MS diagnosis, we always hosted. My uncle, king of turkey and CEO of stuffing, would come to our house in the morning with bags of supplies, plus a bonus bag filled with appetizers from Zabar’s: salami, cheeses, crackers, olives, lox spread, and bagels.

He’d pop the prepared turkey in the oven and it would cook all day while we snacked and cracked jokes. When it came time to eat, my father would hoist my mother into her scooter and drive her into the dining room after she could no longer do so herself. We’d eat and laugh, and when all us kids were of legal age, or close enough, drink some wine.

My memories of Thanksgiving were almost always punctuated by laughter. Especially in the earlier years, before my mother’s pain became unbearable.

This was from Passover, but same crew, without the matzoh.

This was from Passover, but the same characters.

The house was always filled with warmth and smelled of roasting turkey and marshmallow topped yams. My uncle would always cook the main meal. My cousin Pia would always bring dessert. My mom always insisted on making, or instructing me how to make, her favorite side dish, green bean casserole. And I always had to have a slice (or two, three) of pumpkin pie topped with Cool Whip.

Maybe that’s what I loved most about Thanksgiving – the “always’s,” the traditions we had curated and nurtured over the years. We were Jewish and didn’t have the show stopper of Christmas to look forward to, so I banked all my love and hope on Thanksgiving.

Things weren’t always so rosy, of course. There were fights and tantrums, angry words and slammed doors, more so as the years edged on to darker times, but mostly I remember the laughter.

The time when my cousin Ari and I stumbled upon a very strange AOL chat room in the late 90s. Don’t ask me why or how this happened, but let’s just say we were beside ourselves with hilarity when we ended up in a conversation about fruit fetishes, among other things.

Then there was the time my grandmother got drunk. Alcohol was pretty minimal at our house, even on the holidays, but somehow she had gotten her glass refilled one time too many and ended up divulging a bizarre genetic glitch afflicting several relatives. I’m almost positive somebody spit out their mashed potatoes, or at least choked on their soda.

Laughter filled the rooms and rang through the kitchen and seeped into the walls, so that when it ended, I could feel its echo.

My mother’s last Thanksgiving was hard. There was little laughter. The mood was dour, tense. My husband and I thought it might be helpful to order dinner from Fresh Direct and bring it from Brooklyn, rather than have my uncle cook in the house since my mom was feeling worse. The king of turkey did not take kindly to what felt like a personal affront. He sulked in the kitchen eating his “take-out” meal while the rest of us sat in the family room with my mother, who was too uncomfortable to transfer from her reclining chair.

I remember feeling desperate for some levity, anything to lighten the mood, to coax my uncle out of the kitchen, to ease the tension with my brother, to make my mother laugh. But nothing worked. We sat on the couch for what felt like an uncomfortable amount of time, and I rolled my eyes at my cousin Pia when our brothers began talking of sports, not with any vigor or enthusiasm, but dully, as if they had nothing else to say. Perhaps because they didn’t.

When everyone finally left, I felt a heavy weight settle around my shoulders as I dumped the leftovers in the trash. Looking back, I wonder if my sadness was actually a sign, a warning. It left me uncomfortable. A sense of foreboding prickled up my spine.

I thought, next year will be better. Next year has to be better.

But it wasn’t, because my mother was dead.

 

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Thank you to Maddy over at Writing Bubble for hosting her What I’m Writing link-up. Check it out for more wonderful words.