At the beginning of one staff meeting when I worked with the hospitals, we were asked to introduce ourselves by telling our name and its story. A large world map had been taped to the bulletin board in front of us. A scribe volunteered to record all of the stories by placing a tack in the map whenever a new place on earth was mentioned. I knew there would be some space covered as we told name stories because our telephone helpline employees were present. They spoke several languages in addition to English and some had immigrated to the U.S.
What captivated me most was the depth and elegance and surprise in every story. Even someone with a simple-to-me name like John Smith, had an elaborate middle name or shared the story of a special Uncle or Grandpa John who had traveled from Newfoundland across Canada to Seattle before putting up stakes. And me – technically I had been named Penelope Jane after a pig in a children’s book. I started my story lamenting that “No, I had not been named after the famous Greek wife” and – ding! – up went a tack halfway around the world.
Sure the name stories of my brown and black-skinned colleagues tended to cover more area than us white folk. We all enjoyed the diverse territory these names laid claim to.
I was most fascinated by the silent, nonvisible stories. The one from my Roman Catholic office mate that included five first names and at least two sir names. And Maya, like all of her sisters, had a saint’s name too, for good measure. And Jake, the child born to two parents who each had hyphenated last names – creating an amalgamation of four names representing four countries and two continents. There was the story of the European-born woman, Elise, who had married an African and had a complicated marriage tale that accompanied her name story. And Gloria too, the woman who had outlived three husbands and just continued to add name after name.
The 40 of us covered the globe that afternoon and left with more information and connection than we’d ever imagined. Never again would our assumptions when seeing a face or hearing a name be so limited. What’s in a name after all? Turns out, a whole lot.