I’ve been living incognito for most of my life. When I was twelve, I was an aspiring rodeo rider. Here’s the picture: Levis, cowboy boots, Stetson style hat, and braids. I remember galloping my scruffy, little quarter horse along the High Line Canal that runs through the prairie near my house.
My name fit me then. But by high school my fantasy changed. I wanted to be unique, desirable, a muse. Peggy was a name that had tomboy dud stuck to my back. I needed something exotic to be the heroine in the romantic novel of my life.
I found it—the name not the novel—at my sister’s college graduation. She went to some college in the East. The family drove cross-country in our Ford two-tone station wagon to witness the event. It was incredible. To my prairie lifestyle the dorms looked like mansions; the landscape was a green rain forest compared to Colorado. My sister’s best friend was Greek. Greek! She has an accent so. . . foreign. . . so sexy. She smoked cigarettes nonchalantly—right in front of my parents! She talked about some guys Sartre and Camus. She was so COOL. Her name was Meris. That’s Greek for “The Sea”.
I stole the name outright. When I got back to Arapaho High School, I became Meris. It was a placebo affectation. I became the school bohemian artist. My parents were not happy; they were totally confounded by the seismic change that was happening to me. The braids? Gone. Hair so long and wild that my dad offered to pay me “to tie up that mop!” When I pierced my ears my mother called me a “Hoopie!” (What?) Heavy eyeliner, and tight hip hugger jeans rounded out my costume. I read existential novels. And, that was just the beginning. It was the sixties. . .
I started to keep a file of “unusual” names. I’d scroll through them like the credits at the end of a movie. Only later I learned that names are powerful and sometimes deceptive. Names assert a vision, an illusion. Names can tell the whole story without the story.
This manipulation of my persona continued through art college. Life then was a cocktail of visceral gratification. In high school men were mostly boys and they had names like Ron, Steve, Mike, . . . In college Mauricio was one of my favorite names on the file.
Did you think the continuing story was going to be Meris migrating to New York SoHo and captivating the art world? I had a bourgeois breakdown instead. I wanted the comfort of a regular job to support my art habit. Regular meant being an urban elementary art teacher. I acquired a couple of extra names: the education bureaucracy called me Itinerant, as in expendable, and the kids called me Art, as in “Art is just the name of the guy.”
Teaching in the inner city is like wearing a nicotine patch if you’ve never smoked before. I did become famous in a way. The art teacher, purveyor of that golden hour of fun twice a month, is a major celebrity to the twelve and under set. Of course there is frustration, exhaustion, and tension, as any celebrity will tell you, but teaching was a jackpot for my file of names.
Italian kids dominated my first school. I was surrounded by names that could be in a Fellini movie: Filomena Tirocchi, Angelo DiFazio, Elvira Berdarducci. In sixth grade, poor Elvira got knocked up by her father. But, she came to school every day so that she could be with her sixth grade boyfriend. She had to withdraw during her sixth month because she couldn’t fit into her school desk. So much for Wonder Bread existentialism.
Because my name was Itinerant, I also taught at another school. The students were mostly generic white with a sprinkling of black kids bussed in after the riots. My “file” filled up with Motown names: Aretha, Germaine, Michael, and black consciousness names, Malcolm, Rasheed, Jamal. Then there was Tode: chocolate brown, small, vacant, a lead baby. When I took class attendance the first day didn’t know it was pronounced Todd. What’s a middle-class alias to do?
Did I mention that I married Mauricio? My lexicon of names increased exponentially with that one simple ceremony. I went to Colombia to meet the family of staid oligarchs. Ironically, they had sabotaged their proper names: Enrique was called Profe—short for professor, Maria Clara was call Melotunas, Teresa was called TeTe, Leonor was called Palo, and Rafael was called Pooky. Maria Ignacia Josefina Rita Margarita Julia Herrera de Barreto, Mauricio’s mother, was called Julia.
The next decade I packed up my Conestoga art wagon and pioneered another school in the south of the city. Here the students were mostly Hispanic and Asian. I’d had Berlitz interval training in Colombia, so I was looking forward to practicing my Spanish skills.
Little Lally was my favorite in the Limited English class. She was all curls, powder pink frill, and paten leather. A miniature Latina siren. That autumn, the class was painting pumpkins. When the red paint hit the yellow and swirled into an orange miracle, she shrieked with ecstasy. I was canonized on the spot. Later I found out that Lally was a nickname; Lesbia was the name on her report card. You’re never prepared for some names.
The Asian kids were part of the tsunami of war refugees that flooded our schools. Tiny, ancient souls silenced by napalm and camp terrors. They are ever so solemn and patient when I try to fit my angular voice into the spherical resonance of Thai, Cambodian, or Hmong pronunciations: Xiong, Sosathabna, Thipphava, and Zoua. I like to imagine that they all go home after school and hoot and howl with laughter over Western names like Peggy or Meris. Giggle - like I did privately - when Kha Kha enrolled in school. I often wonder how that poor kid survived middle school scatological warfare.
My first child was a black and tan Bloodhound. He remained nameless for a month while Mauricio—also a compulsive name master—and I fretted and haggled over the right name. Our saggy, sloppy, dear boy was finally named Bubba. As any good southerner will tell you that is what you call the first-born son.
Having survived the tribulations of parenting a willful, wandering canine, we decided to try parenting a Homo sapien. The name jousting lasted nine months. Mauricio put up names like José Maria, Balthazar, and Sancho. I was apoplectic. As far as I was concerned, Sancho was the fat dude who rode a donkey behind that skinny sixteenth century nut with old age dementia. In the end, the hospital nurse brought me breakfast and a card to fill out for the birth certificate. I wrote in Julia. When I’m feeling especially maternal, I call her JuJu.
The teaching habit frayed me out. The daily routine, the mundane demands dull the sense of inquiry, adventure, and risk. I fight to keep the Meris in my life even if only sporadically. The creative flow is dammed to a trickle, but the prospect of the surge of inspiration held back is like a wish and a prophecy.
Mateo had a crush on me in kindergarten; he told me that I looked like Cinderella. He was dark and handsome as a movie star. The change started to metastasize as he grew. By second grade he was wearing the colored beads of the Latin Kings. His eyebrows were shaved in vertical gashes gang style. In third grade our relationship was adversarial, verging on the hysterical. In fourth grade he snapped. In show of defiance—or despair—he put his arm under the machete blade of the paper cutter on my desk. I was only steps away. Thank God I stopped him! My poor baby.
Later another school. This school became my nightmare and my epiphany. The children were project waifs from disrupted, corrupted, bankrupted families, barely surviving the American cultural war: weapons brought from home, children as young as nine restrained and handcuffed by the police. Names like Prince, Sir Joseph, Major, and Glory were used to Spackle the cracks in low self-esteem. They were tough, brazen, and vulnerable as porcelain in an earthquake zone. Four letter invectives or bear hugs could erupt at any given moment.
Did I mention the arrival of African children fleeing tribal conflict: Mobolagi, Omabola, Foday? The Haitian children escaping climate calamities, endemic poverty and violence: Elifet, Lovelie, Wilky?
The sky blue pills are good for quelling the rage and fear that occupy my mind some days when I can’t shut off the whining replay of this documentary. But I am luckier than some teachers. Artwork provides the healing catharsis. It is my visual salvation.
At few years later, on the front page of the morning newspaper, there was a picture of Mateo, age fifteen. He was dead. He shot himself in the head with a pistol, the same pistol that he was playing with when he accidentally shot his best friend.
I confess that I am a liar. I guess we all hide behind names that are wishes. Me? Margaret Ruth is on my birth certificate. I’m named after both my grandmothers. The names are impossibly heavy, Victorian, and biblical. How did I get so weighed down?
Recently, the children have been arriving with names that are hyphens and apostrophes: Trey-del, V-dal, Tea’quondra, Shi’wana, and Ja’neice. Short hand for abbreviated lives? Maybe the names are like lyrics that fit some beat I don’t know.
A new child enrolled in school last week. Her name is Thend—pronounced “The End.” Maybe. Thirty years is a long time to work at anything, especially the panoramic slide show of elementary humanity. I’m seriously thinking about the sequel to my life in names.
I’m thinking about gardening in Technicolor. Get these! Fritillaria (Checkered Lily), Hyancinthoides (Spanish Bluebells), Monarda (Bee Balm), Physostegia (False Dragonhead), Polygonatum (Solomon’s Seal). I’m going to start a new collection of names.