Names I’ve Carried

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One of the gifts of writing this blog is hearing from people I used to know in what I call my “other lives.” Recently, after a comment on my blog by an old high school classmate who called me Ricky, followed by one by a former student calling me Sir, I realized one way to identify these other lives is to look at how people from my past name me.

So far, in thinking about the names I’ve carried on this pilgrimage that’s approaching three quarters of a century, I’ve come up with Rickie, Ricky, Richard, Richman, Wile, Wildman, Twinkle-Toes, Sweetie, Lofty, Rick, Dick, Rich, Maine, Froggy, My Son, My Son the Educated Fool, Mr. Wile, Wiley Coyote, Perfessor, Mr. Advanced Placement, Honey, Officer, Sir, Bro, Brother, Da-Da, Dad, Your Father, You Son-of-a-Bitch, You Shit, Darling Rick, You Poor Bastard, Pastor, Ass-hole, Hey You! Gampa, Grampa Rick, Grampa Friday.

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Once a year for at least the last twenty-five years, I’ve celebrated my birthday by watching the classic movie, Casablanca. When my mother saw that movie in 1943, she was, in the words of the King James Bible, “with child,” and thinking Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick Blaine, looked like my father, decided to name me Richard and call me Ricky, the name I grew up with.

Almost all of the boys I knew had an “ie,” or a “y” at the end of their name: Willie, Allie, Teddy, Scotty, Dougie, to name just a few. The website “English Language and Usage” states that this practice dates from the Middle English, and denotes familiarity, intimacy, or tenderness—all feelings I was graced to grow up with. But by the time I was eighteen, I thought my name childish, a symbol of being overprotected, hemmed in. I wanted to be the Rick of Casablanca, the mysterious figure lurking in the shadows of Morocco, sucking on his unfiltered Camels, nursing his whiskey and his deep, dark past, and of course, his love for the beautiful Ilsa. The Camels and the whiskey led to what my doctor calls “mild” COPD and a few battles with booze before I surrendered to a twelve-step program. Still, one of the first things I noticed when I met my wife Mary Lee was how much she looks like Ingrid Bergman. Like Bogart’s Rick, I’m, in the words of Inspector Renault, “a sentimentalist,” hiding behind a veneer of sarcasm. I like to think I have Rick’s integrity and concern for the underdog.

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I’ll never forget the first time a student called my Mr. Wile. I didn’t know who the hell he was talking about. But as other students called me Mr. Wile, I began to experience a pride, a sense of importance, authority, I’d never had before. N. Scott Momady writes in his memoir, The Names, that Native Americans receive names so that they might grow into them. This is what I did with my new name, Mr. Wile. I became that authority figure—stern, demanding. In the early 1970s, when teachers and students alike were dressing more and more informally, I wore double-breasted sport coats, bell-bottomed slacks, paisley ties, and matching pocket handkerchiefs. I covered my students’ essays with corrections and comments, and more than once reduced a school valedictorian to tears.

One summer, almost twenty years after becoming Mr. Wile, my first wife, our daughter, and I went to a local Fourth of July parade. I ran into some former students, now in college. They said nice things about how well they were doing in English, how thoroughly I’d prepared them for college expectations. I wished them all the best, lit my pipe, and blew a self-satisfied smoke ring. Above the clamor, a voice cried, “Hey, Mr. Wile!” I looked around for another student. I heard the voice behind me: “Mr. Wile?” Turning, I saw my daughter, Laurie—she was probably twelve at the time—her eyebrows raised, her forehead furrowed. “I’ve been saying Dad for the last five minutes,” she said, “but you never noticed me.”

My God, I remember thinking, is Mr. Wile all I am, even to my own child? Of course, that wasn’t the only reason I quit the Rotary Club, the church Board of Deacons, my job, and my marriage, but it became an easy reason to point to. And when Laurie died of cancer six years later, my guilt and shame over the memory of Mr. Wile and not Dad pounded in my chest like one of the monsters in the Alien movies that were so popular at the time, threatening to explode and tear me apart.

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Most of the names I’ve carried have come from other people, but there was one name I gave myself. About eight years after Laurie died, at a time when I thought that I’d gone through the worst of my grieving and that Mary Lee and I were finally starting to enjoy life again, I experienced a period of darkness such as I hadn’t experienced since the first months after my daughter’s death. I became withdrawn, angry all over again, bitter, especially with other people who talked about having suffered a great loss in their own lives. In talking with Mary Lee, my rector, my spiritual director, and after difficult periods of meditation, I began to see—and I’ve since read this is common with a great grief—that what I was grieving was not the loss of my daughter, but the loss of my grief over the death of my daughter. Without knowing I’d done so, I’d given myself the name Grieving Father. At some level, I knew I had to lose this name if I were to move on with my life, but at the same time, it was really hard to let it go.

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One of my hardest decisions after starting to write for publication was deciding what name to put on my work. Should I use Rick, as I am to everyone who knows me these days? Or should I go with the more formal Richard, a name I didn’t even know I had until I entered school? I saw that most of my mentors wrote under their formal names, and that my formal name was on my checkbook. Besides, I decided, authors calling themselves Rick seemed too new agey, especially for someone of my generation. I went with Richard.

But honestly, I feel like I’m using an alias.

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When both of my stepsons and their wives announced that they were going to be parents, I had mixed feelings. I was delighted for them, but at the same time, while not bitter, I was apprehensive about becoming bitter. I will, I told myself, never have a “real” grandchild of my own. These children will already have two grandfathers. Will I be extraneous? The ghost of Mr. Wile whispered in my ear, You never spent enough time with your daughter. Are you going to avoid your grandchildren, too?

All of which changed the moment I held, first John and then six weeks later, Anastasia in my arms. All my baggage, all the solipsistic crap, melted in the depth of their eyes.

And now, that I’m some form of Grampa to five grandchildren has given me a name I prize.

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In my Bio for this blog two and a half years ago, I equated my various names with what Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr, and others call “false selves.” I think I felt then that these names had kept me from realizing my “true self”: myself as the image of God, “manifested,” as Father Keating says, “in our uniqueness.”

But today, I’m wondering if all of these names I’ve carried on my pilgrimage aren’t various facets of my true self—don’t, in fact, reveal my uniqueness. Madeleine L’Engle writes somewhere that to name something is to assign it meaning, value, importance, and significance. That essentially to name something is to love it. If so, my names, even those reminding me of how love can die, show me that my 75-year-old pilgrimage has largely been one through love.

Something worth remembering.

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The Pattern of Exodus

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The Crossing of the Red Sea, 1634, by Nicholas Poussin. Wikipedia.

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The first time I ever heard the word “exodus” was probably in Mrs. Raynes’s Sunday school class back around 1950, when we learned about the miracle—Mrs. Raynes was big on miracles—of Moses parting the Red Sea and leading the children of Israel to the Promised Land. A few years later, like half the civilized world, I saw Cecil B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments, and learned that Moses looked like Charleton Heston, turned wooden staffs into snakes, and wandered around the desert for forty years.

I thought of the word last week while on my exercise bicycle, reading Margaret Gunther’s Walking Home: From Eden to Emmaus, meditations on famous walks in the Bible. Gunther reminded me that the Israelites had first come to Egypt from Canaan to seek sanctuary from a famine that was sweeping the area. Some of you may remember the story of Joseph, son of Jacob, whose brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, but who rose to power, becoming Pharaoh’s right-hand man. In an act of forgiveness, Joseph invited his father and his eleven brothers to join him in relative comfort while the rest of the area was starving. Four hundred years later, however, the Egyptians had enslaved the descendants of Jacob until Charlton Heston—I mean, Moses—came to their rescue and led them to the land God had promised them.

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What intrigued me was Gunther’s observation that this pattern of exodus—from sanctuary to slavery to escape to arrival at the promised land—is an archetypal journey many of us take.

Peddling on, I thought of the sanctuary that was my home town, but which became, by the time I was seventeen, a prison I could hardly wait to escape. In college, I wandered a desert of unhappiness and confusion, until I found what seemed at the time, a promised land in Down East Maine. I recalled a marriage that began as a sanctuary from a hostile world’s assassinations, civil unrest, and a war that was killing off my friends, only to become a passive-aggressive battle with a woman I didn’t know, and skirmishes with addiction and self-flagellation, before an escape to the promised land of Mary Lee’s love and understanding.

Then my mind peddled on to my most recent exodus.

Most of you reading this blog know that my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie died of a rare cancer. Seeking sanctuary, I bought my grandparent’s house back in the town in which I’d grown up—the one I couldn’t wait to leave thirty years earlier. At the time, I would have told you that buying the house was like the Israelites crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land after forty years of wandering.

Adrift in a sea of uncertainty and sorrow, the house became my anchor. Looking into its history, I discovered that it had been moved a quarter of a mile from Main Street, that it had been built up, added on to, partially torn down, and remodeled countless times: a mirror, I felt, of what had happened to me over the years. I researched many of the people who had owned my house, found their gravestones, and discovered that almost all of them had lost children, which gave me the comfort in not being alone in my grief. The large maple tree in my backyard became my family tree, complete with a large broken limb jutting from the top.

I assumed I would live in that house until I died.

I’m not sure when this promised land turned to prison. There might have been a foreboding as early as when Mary Lee and I first moved in and I was in the process of turning what had been my grandparents’ dining room into my office. In order to have more space for my books, I was taking off to door to what had been a china cabinet, when I heard my grandfather’s voice: “And what do you think you’re doing, young man?”

Whether because I was afraid of pissing him off even more, or because I found the memories I had of the house comforting (this was the first house I lived in with my mother and grandparents after coming home from the hospital in 1943 while my father served in the Army overseas, the house I came to for Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter dinners), I largely left the house the way I remembered it, which included drafty windows, worn linoleum, and a damp cellar that frequently flooded after storms. I never could call the house “my house,” without feeling as if I were lying. The house was always—and remains so in my mind—my grandparents’ house.

One day, shortly after the cellar had flooded again, I realized that I knew more people in the cemetery than I did in the local grocery store that had just completed its third expansion in twenty years. That I was spending almost every day driving to another town, because that’s where my job, my friends, and my church were. That my anchor had become a millstone.

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The house that will always be my grandparents’. Oh, and the roof leaked, too.

Still, it took retirement and the recognition that Mary Lee and I were going to have trouble keeping up the mortgage payments and the increasing taxes to spur us to move. Even then, leaving the house was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I remember walking through the empty house after the movers had left, listening to the echoes of footsteps and memories, wondering if I hadn’t made a terrible mistake.

But since then I’ve never regretted leaving. Have I found the promised land? It depends what “promised land” means, I guess. Certainly, compared to the thousands and thousands of people being forced these days into exoduses from their countries, I have. I’m happy where Mary Lee and I live. Still, I doubt if it’s permanent. We’re trying to budget our bucks so that, if necessary, we’ll be able to afford one of the assisted living facilities that have sprung up like mushrooms around here. But they’re not going to be any kind of promised land, either.

Growing older, I find myself thinking of the promised land as more of a frame of mind, a spiritual not a physical destination, not unlike pilgrimage, a place of freedom from bondage, a place of growth, and at the same time, a place of serenity—a word I’m coming to value more and more these days.

For now, I seem to have found it, but I expect that part of the archetypal pattern of exodus is that one never really gets to the promised land and stays there, at least not in this lifetime. (The Israelites were forced into exile in the 6th century BCE and again in 70 CE.) I expect that I’ve got one or two more exoduses ahead of me before the big one.

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