What's in a Name?

by Joanie Butman

What’s in a name? According to my son who wrote his college essay about growing up with a name that evokes potty humor: EVERYTHING! I’m just glad I didn’t have to grow up in Brooklyn with the surname Butman. It would have been brutal.

My family has its own issues with names. I have two sisters named Mary: MaryFrances and MaryGrace. I, too, was destined to become another walking tribute to the Virgin Mother until my grandmother intervened. Thank goodness for family. For my son, Doug, it was my brother-in-law that stepped in and pointed out the folly in my name of choice for him, Harry. For those without sophomoric humor that translates to Hairy Buttman. He would have been scarred for life, ‘butt’ no one would ever forget his name!

I am much better with faces than names. Often it is the face and the context in which I see people that helps me identify them. That’s the problem with the internet. Unless people include a photo with their correspondence, often I am at a loss. You can call it a senior moment, a blonde moment, a brain fart or early Alzheimer’s, but it is what it is and it’s getting worse. Just last week someone sent me a nice note about my blog. Grateful she took the time to comment, I thanked her and asked how she heard about it. Embarrassingly, she graciously reminded me that I introduced her to it at a recent dinner with a mutual friend. Not that it’s an excuse, but had I seen her face I would have known her immediately, but without facial recognition it’s like driving blind.

Here’s a great example. I reconnected (or so I thought) with a woman on the internet a couple of years ago in regard to a mutual friend. We had an email friendship for almost a year before we decided it would be nice to meet face-to-face. When I arrived for lunch, I couldn’t find her because I thought I had been talking to someone entirely different. When she saw my confusion, she came over to introduce herself. I couldn’t hide my shock. Before I could stop myself I blurted out, “You’re Ruth?!?” I had another acquaintance by the same name (first and last) and had just assumed it was her I had been emailing all this time.

For some, facial recognition fails to overcome their handicap with names. There is a woman in my town that’s been calling me Janet for the past 15 years. I gently corrected her in the beginning, but she persisted. Considering Janet is better than a lot of other names I’ve been given, like my brothers’ personal favorite, Gastank, I decided to just go with it.

The name incidents that I disliked most were when I was growing up following my siblings through school. When I did not live up to my sister’s stellar academic achievements, on more than one occasion the nun’s we shared commented, “You’re no Mary.” No kidding, thanks for reminding me.

My mother-in-law is struggling remembering names, and on a recent double date she turned to me to inquire where my husband was. He was driving the car we were in but I didn’t want to point that out so I just pretended she asked about her grandson. I'm still not sure who she didn't recognize - him or me? It’s sad but to be expected at 96. I try to comfort her by explaining that she remembers her own name, which is more than many of her peers. My mom told me when my grandfather lived with us he would sit at the kitchen table and just write his name over and over and over. When she asked why, he replied, “So I don’t forget it.”

My dad claims to have Alzheimer’s, and maybe he does, but he’s the sharpest Alzheimer’s patient I’ve ever seen. He can recall volumes of information and can ace any Jeopardy category. Old movies are his passion, and he can recite every actor’s name. So I was surprised one day when he confided that the only thing about Alzheimer’s that scares him is that one day he would forget about God. Puzzled because he is and always has been one of the most faithful Christians, I could only respond, “Didn’t those nuns teach you anything? You have nothing to fear because God will NEVER forget YOU!” Yes, our human bodies and minds deteriorate and we may forget our spouse, our children, or even our own name, but God promises, “I will not forget you! See, I have engravedyou on the palms of my hands.”(Isaiah 49:16) For someone who frequently uses her palms as post-its, I can totally relate, but His hands must be HUGE!!!

Names don’t carry as much import as they once did. Current society doesn’t put much value on their meaning like they did in Biblical times, nor is it still mandatory for Catholics to be named after saints. Historically, your name may have characterized where you were from, whose child you were, or maybe what you did for a living. Kind of makes you wonder what profession was in the Butman’s past. My maiden name is Maresca, which means by the sea, and makes sense because that branch of the family is from the coastal town of Sorrento. As a mater of fact, half the population shares that surname.

During Jesus’ day, your name defined you. Throughout the Bible God changes people’s names along with their purpose just as Jesus did for many of his disciples. No name could be more defining than His. Jesus means ‘God saves.’ Another of His designations, Emmanuel, means ‘God with us.’ Christ or Messiah means ‘anointed one.’ Maybe my son was spot on with his answer to Shakespeare’s query, “What’s in a name?” EVERYTHING!

A reminder for my dad.