What is in a name? For me, a huge amount. One of my other vices – I mean hobbies– is genealogy, so I’ve always paid extremely close attention to names. That’s one of the first things I look at when I’m digging up dead relatives (and in some cases, putting them back, when I find out enough to know that I’m not related to them after all). While I’m sure she was a lovely girl (at least Romeo thought so, anyway…) I don’t subscribe to Juliet’s theory that “…a rose by any other name would smell as sweet…”. Names can tell you where you come from, who you are, who you are not, and a whole lot more.
Names became even more important to me when I found myself unexpectedly (and very unhappily) alone in the world after Bill’s death and trying to make my way forward in a new place. All the usual identifiers were gone; I was no one’s wife, no one’s pastor, no longer a Midwesterner. It wasn’t that I was experiencing something ‘out of my comfort zone’; I had no ‘comfort zone’. Virtually every detail of my life and every waking moment of my day to day existence was different than it had ever been. Shortly after my move, when those feelings were freshest and most painful, I saw a post from a dear friend (thanks, Carol M.!) listing some of her favorite Wendell Berry quotes, one of which touched me deeply:
“…If you don’t know where you’re from, you’ll have a hard time saying where you’re going…”
I had no idea where I was going. Could looking back at where I was from help me figure it out? Turning to my genealogy hobby, I dug deeper into whose I was and where I came from, identifying as many of the details as I could about the relationships that bound my life to those who populated the generations before me. And for me, Berry was right. Finding out more about where I came from gave me a sense of connectedness I desperately needed at that point in time, and it started me on the path of discerning where I was going.
Far beyond the sense of belonging that finding these family members gave me, their lives were flesh and blood illustrations of the fact that even in the face of great adversity and grief, it is possible to move forward, something I wasn’t convinced of at the time. My great-great Grandmother Ann (Heywood) Olive was a single mom in 1840s England. She married my great-great Grandfather in 1850 and had six more children before leaving England, two of whom died in infancy. Workers in the Lancashire textile mills, their jobs disappeared when the embargo of our southern ports stopped cotton shipments to England during the Civil War. So they headed for America. If Ann could pack up what was left of her family, endure a month-long ocean voyage on a ship with more than 575 other people (during the first trimester of yet another pregnancy), travel to a country where she knew no one and rebuild her life, then I could put my stuff in a truck and move four states away to where the rest of my family was and survive, too.
I also discovered that the legacy of faith running through my family lines is far deeper and wider than I ever realized. Knowing that, even on those days when it felt like God was a million miles away, (and there were some of those), I could look at those names and remind myself that I came from people of faith and that was part of who I am. When I couldn’t articulate anything else about who I was or where I was going, I could affirm my identity as a child of God, and at that moment, it was enough.
What’s in your name? Were you named after an ancestor? One of your parents’ best friends? Someone famous?
What images and feelings do the family surnames you carry evoke?
Who is family to you (whether there is any biological or legal connection or not)? Name them and give thanks for all the ways their lives are connected to yours.
While the names, titles, and descriptors humans have placed on you (and the feelings those things evoke) impact your existence, remember that your true identity lies elsewhere. You are a child of God.