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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.