There is a lot they don’t tell you in birthing class. In fact, all I remember from the classes is the talk about poop, that we should be ready for it, that it was good. Poop would be the only thing to tell us if everything was working—if the baby was eating and if what the baby was eating was finding its way through.
I remember a video the instructor showed us at one of our last sessions—the women’s faces, the grunts, the expectant father blotting sweat from the mother’s brow, coaching, massaging. It all looked somewhat civilized.
I can’t say we were misled, but I don’t remember whispering slogans into Vidya’s ear. Maybe if I had positioned myself differently it would have made more sense. I remember the nurse moving something around by the foot of Vidya’s bed.
“Can I help you with something?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “Here…” she flipped up the sheets and took Vidya’s right leg. “Grab the other leg and do what I do,” she put her shoulder beneath Vidya’s knee, pressing up and away from Vidya’s belly. I tried to mirror what I saw.
“Are you going to be OK with this?” she looked me up and down with a squint.
I squinted back, “Yeah,” I said. “I’m good.”
The doctor, Meredith, sat between us on a short stool. I liked Meredith, though I didn’t like calling her Meredith. I would have preferred to call her Doctor. Our regular doctor, the one we called Doctor, was on vacation. She had left the previous day, shortly after we arrived in the maternity ward. She introduced us to Meredith and she was off.
I followed Meredith’s gaze to find a steady scroll of paper flowing from a printer attached by wires to a belt around Vidya’s belly. I watched as the stylus spiked to the top of the graph paper.
“Do you feel anything?” Meredith asked.
“Not really,” Vidya said.
“Oh, come on,” I said. “Give it up. You are such a bad liar. You know, we have you hooked up to a lie detector.”
“That’s not a lie detector,” Meredith said. “That measures the contractions.”
We all looked at the contract-o-meter, waiting for the next spike.
“OK, now,” Meredith said. “Push, push, push, push…”
The nurse and I pushed against Vidya’s legs with crazy athletic intensity, like they were the pads on a football training sled, for a count of ten, then everyone relaxed. The lie detector dropped into neutral for a minute and calm fell upon us. We were comfortable and social. We talked about TV shows and movies. It felt like we were sitting around having a cup of coffee, as if we all met for coffee regularly, with Vidya’s legs on our shoulders.
“So,” Meredith said. “Have you picked out names?”
“We have a girl’s name,” Vidya said, “but we don’t have a name for a boy.”
“What is the girl’s name?” the nurse asked.
“Ella,” Vidya said.
“Ella Grace,” I said.
“Ella, Ella Grace,” the nurse nodded. “That’s nice.”
“It is nice,” Meredith said, “but as these things go, if you don’t have a boy’s name ready, then it’s probably going to be a boy. OK, here it comes. Push, push, push, push…”
I always thought naming things—fossilized animals, heavy elements, planets, babies—would be fun. It didn’t work out that way. The first thing I had ever named was my dog. It took me over a week to find a name I could say more than a couple time without wincing. When I did, everyone told me what an idiot I was—“You can’t name a dog Roebling. No one knows what that means.”
That is the difficult thing about picking a name—public perception. And, since it’s the most glaring purpose of giving someone a name, however inconvenient, it has to be taken into account.
“Mateo”, Vidya said. “It’s from a book I read. It’s Pali. It means “great friend,” or “best friend.”
“Mateo, Matthew, Matt, Matty…” I said. My eyes rolled up into my head, searching through the unofficial roster of my life. I couldn’t think of anyone with a similar name who caused me to wince. “Mateo’s good!” I said. “A winner—top of the list. I’ve also heard it used as the Italian form of Matthew, which means,” I flipped through my baby book. “Gift from God! What better name could there be for a Christmas baby?”
“No,” Vidya said. “It’s not spelled like that. It’s spelled M-E-T-I-Y-U.”
I could see the letters hanging in the air like colorful refrigerator magnets. “No,” I said. “We can’t spell it like that.”
“Why not?” Vidya protested.
“It’s too important, that’s why,” I said. “A name has to be an easy sight read. Every September on the first day of school, every substitute teacher, every time a person in authority says the child’s name for the first time, they are going to mispronounce it. That is not a good thing. It is not good to cringe on the first day of school. It’s not good to hope that you are skipped over because you are embarrassed by how your name is mangled.”
I drew columns on the blackboard in the kitchen. Under boys’ names I wrote Mateo as MATEO. For good measure, under girls’ names I wrote MATEA. At the top a third column I wrote RULES.
Rule 1: The name has to be an easy sight read.
It was a good first rule. It covered a lot of ground and could be interpreted and stretched in a few ways. It eliminated the need to enumerate several considerations that came up later, like names with two pronunciations—a normal every day one and a fancy affected one. I also found myself evaluating later suggestions saying, “OK, maybe it isn’t in the wording, but I think the spirit of Rule 1 is that our child should be able to walk into any souvenir shop and find a license plate, Mickey Mouse Ears or a coffee mug—something with his name on it.”
As the first name on the list, Mateo eked by for a good, long time. It was grandfathered in as I developed other rules. It should have been erased when I developed the second rule.
Rule 2: Avoid names from medium complexion cultures.
Vidya couldn’t stop writing Spanish names in the girl column—Amarissa, Lucita, Mariquita. The names were beautiful, but to remain beautiful, they had to be pronounced with a Spanish accent. I don’t speak Spanish, and neither did our child’s expectant aunts, uncles and grandparents. I experimented with the names, but when I said them, pronouncing them without the Spanish accent, it sounded too American. The names didn’t sound American, I did. I sounded like the dreaded American tourist who can’t be bothered to learn a foreign language. That may have been who I was, but I didn’t have to sound like it in my own home.
Another problem was that our child’s skin color was up in the air. My family came from the British Isles while Vidya’s family came from India by way of Guyana. Our baby could be pale, dark, beige, tan or taupe. Giving her a name like Mariquita, would only confuse the matter.
I sought out Hindu names for the chalkboard. The girl names were easy. Uma was a winner, a name for the Hindu goddess Parvati and a popular movie star name, by now it was almost American. Tara was another good one—another manifestation of the Hindu goddess, it was spelled and pronounced exactly the same as the Irish girl’s name, making it a perfect cross-cultural candidate.
Hindu boy names were elusive. I searched online, just kind of flipping through the alphabet. A problem I ran into was that, as I read the names, the pronunciation I decided upon had very little to do with how the name was actually said. This is a problem I run into when reading novels. I will simplify unfamiliar names, like Russian agents in spy novels. It makes it hard for me to discuss books I read.
What caused me bigger problems were the familiar Indian names, the ones I already knew as the name of a colleague, a neighbor or a former classmate. As the names jumped out at me from the online lists, my eyes scanned to the right to find their meanings. No matter how familiar a name had become to me, it remained far more exotic than the simple English definition that accompanied it. My brain began to substitute simple English phrases for various Hindu names I used in daily interactions. As confusing as it was, it was enchanting to discover that my friend Vikram was the Sun of Valor and Suchitra, a woman who worked in the office down the hall was the Beautiful Picture.
I must have looked rather shifty to Ranjeet, one of my client contacts. I would break step outside our office building when it looked like our paths might cross. I would stop, squint and bring my hand to my chin in concentration. If I passed him on the street, I would look to the upper windows of neighboring buildings, as if I was worried that someone might jump. I was quickly running out of the generic greetings—a simple thumbs up, a punch in the arm or a, “hey, how’s it going?”
Over a three-day weekend I let my guard down completely. On the Tuesday morning after Labor Day we returned to work and I let it slip. Just as the elevator doors were closing, Ranjeet jumped on. I smiled at him. Forgetting his name but remembering its English meaning, I said, “Good morning, Delighted One. How was your weekend?”
“We don’t think of names that much,” Vidya said.
We had been invited to a baby shower in Queens. Vidya wasn’t the only pregnant woman in the family. Two of her cousins’ wives were also expecting their first children. We were heading to the first of the baby showers.
“In a Hindu family, parents don’t pick the name of their child,” Vidya explained, pulling off the Long Island Expressway. “I mean, they pick it, but they pick it from a short list.”
“Where does the list come from?” I asked.
“When a child’s born, someone from the family—my mother, probably—goes to the Pundit. The Pundit takes the birth information—the child’s gender, the time and date of birth—and consults astronomical charts. From there he comes up with a list of suitable names.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “Well, that’s what they used to do.”
I thought about it until the strangeness wore off. “You know,” I said. “I don’t know how wide spread it is, but I’ve heard of traditions in Catholic countries where a family will name their child after whatever Saint’s feast day they were born on. That’s kind of the same thing.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I guess.”
“An old girlfriend of mine had three uncles named Jesus.”
So far, I had only been to a couple of Vidya’s family functions, but I was becoming accustomed to a certain pattern. I walked through the door, kicked off my shoes, I said hello to Dora, Vidya’s mother, and said goodbye to Vidya.
While, in day to day life, Vidya’s family and the Guyanese-American community they socialized with have dispensed with the traditional Indian practices of purdah—sequestering women from social engagements—there was a definite division and purdah-esque feel at family parties. Men and women did not celebrate in the same room or on the same floor.
The parties that I had been invited to had a reverse purdah feel to them, where the women retained control of the living room and kitchen and the men were hidden away. On this particular evening, I was told to hold onto my shoes while I was led to a side door. The men’s party wasn’t even in the house. It was in the driveway, with a wet bar and bowl of chips in the garage.
The highlight of this party was that I got to meet the two other soon-to-be fathers. We stood together by the driveway gate where other men held their glasses up to us, slap us on the backs, shook their heads and laughed.
When the party ended, Vidya came out the side door with a bag half filled with maternity clothing her mother had picked out for her. We left through the driveway gate.
“My mother wants us to go to her house,” Vidya said as she started the car. “My aunties and cousins were on me about it too.”
“What,” I asked, “is there another party?”
“There’s always another party,” Vidya said. “There is never an end to the family parties, but that’s not what I’m talking about. She wants me to go to her house, to stay there, to be there when the baby comes. She says that’s the way it’s done. That I’m mean, that I’m a bad daughter if I don’t do it. They’re all doing it, you know? My cousins, the pregnant ones, they’re all moving in with their mothers for when the baby comes.”
“Really?” I said. “Nobody said anything to me about it. How long are they staying there?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Vidya said. “A few weeks, a couple of months, maybe.”
“So, your mother wants us to move in with them for a couple of months?”
“No,” Vidya explained, “she wants me to move there, but you can come.”
“But for months?” I said.
“No,” Vidya said. “She’s thinking more like a year.”
“A year?” I said.
“She says it’s a Hindu thing,” she said. “They all said it. This is the way it’s done.”
“Is it a Hindu thing?” I asked. “Are you sure it’s not just your mother’s thing?”
“I don’t know,” Vidya said.
“Can you check?”
“What do you mean?” Vidya said. “How can I check?”
“I don’t know. Isn’t there a Hindu book of things?” I said.
“What are you talking about?” Vidya said.
“Say you want to do something Catholic, like celebrate Christmas. Now, I’ll say we’re a Christmas morning family—we don’t open gifts until Christmas morning. But you’ll say that the Catholic friend that you grew up with opened gifts on Christmas Eve. So, we want to know which is right. So, there’s a book we can go to.”
“The Bible?” Vidya asked.
“No, not the Bible,” I explained. “The Catechism. You look it up in the Catechism and you know what you’ll find? Nothing—no mention of when to open Christmas presents, no Christmas trees, no lawn ornaments and no Santa Claus. All of that stuff is cultural—family traditions and that sort of thing. None of it is part of the religion.”
“So, we can open presents on Christmas Eve?” Vidya asked.
“No,” I said. “We can’t. Opening presents on Christmas Eve is an affront to all that’s holy, but that’s not the point. The point is that I think you’re mother is passing off her thing as a Hindu thing. I’m not buying it. I think we need some kind of Hindu Catechism.”
“I don’t think we have anything like that,” Vidya said.
“I’ll see what I can find,” I said.
I thought about bringing my question to the Beautiful Picture in the office down the hall or asking the Delighted One the next time I saw him in the elevator, but I thought it would most likely open me to more opinion and interpretations of family traditions. I spent my lunch hour in books stores, skimming through the narrow selection of Hindu titles offered. The sacred Bhagavad Gita remained aloof on the matter and though the Kama Sutra offered step by step advice of a more intimate nature, it focused on the flirty aspects of a relationship—how to entice the advances of your lover. It didn’t go into what happens nine months later. It didn’t tell you how to spurn the advances of your mother-in-law.
“OK,” I called Vidya from my desk at work a few days later. “I found something on the web. It doesn’t refer to another text, so I don’t know anything about its origins. The language is archaic too, so I don’t know if these are still recommended practices, but it is the only thing I can find.”
“What does it say,” Vidya asked.
“It says a lot of the things your mother says. When you are about a month or two from your due date,” I explained, “your brothers come to take you to the home of your parents. Your family will care for you and your mother and maybe an auntie or two will help you with the birth of your child.”
“What about you?” Vidya asked. “Do you come to my mother’s house too?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t go to your mother’s. I stay out in the pastures, with my flocks.”
“Really?” Vidya said skeptically.
“Yes, I do. I stay with my flocks until the child is born.”
“What happens then,” she asked.
“After the child is born,” I continued, “a prominent member of your father’s village, someone like the barber, comes to find me in the pastures. He will deliver the news of my child’s birth and tell me if the child is male or female.”
“The barber?” Vidya said incredulously.
“Yes, and I thank him with gifts of money and clothing.”
“What you want is a rock-and-roll name,” my old roommate Frank suggested. “You know, the kind of names that rock stars and actors give their kids. Let me help you out. So, you and Vidya met at a party in Brooklyn, right? OK, Brooklyn’s a good start. What street was the party on?”
“Grace Court,” I replied.
“Well, that’s not going to work,” Frank said.
“What?” I said.
“Grace!” he said.
“I think Grace is a nice name,” I said.
“That’s just it,” Frank said. “It’s a name. You don’t want to give your child a name. There’s nothing rock and roll about that. Think about some other street names—maybe places where you first kissed or went on dates—Montague, Fulton, maybe Lafayette or Jeralemon … ”
Grace made it onto the list. Jeralemon did not.
A spate of non-rock and roll names came our way from my seven year old niece, Katie—an unsurprising set—Robert, John, Anthony ,Scott.
“What made you pick those names?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, looking away from me and her nine year old sister, Jackie.
“That’s not true,” Jackie said. “Those are the names of her boyfriends.”
“Is that right?” I asked. “Are those boys that you like?”
Katie held her expression, as if she were pouting and then burst out laughing. “Yes! OK! Yes!” she shouted. “Those are the boys I like!”
Danny, my nine year old nephew and the girls’ cousin, leaned back in an easy chair, dramatically lit by the reading light on the lamp stand next to him. He took on a senior advisor role. “A good name is important,” he cut through the girls’ laughter. “It’s an easy thing for other kids to make fun of. You have to be careful of what it sounds like and what it rhymes with.”
Appreciating Danny’s focus, I lobbed a few names his way. His mouth mumbled voicelessly as he ran through the alphabet, calling out rhymes as they came up.
“Claire—Airy Claire—Claire the Bear—I dare you Claire—Chocolate éclair—County Fair—What’s that glare? Hairy Claire—Ride the mare—Hairy Claire could use some Nair—Hairy Claire is shaped like a pear—I’ll have mine medium rare—Share—Tear—Wear…” Danny wound down from his frenzy.
“Wow Danny,” I said. “You’ve really got a knack for this.”
Danny shrugged. “It’s important,” Danny shrugged. “You don’t want kids calling you stuff.”
Danny was so good at it that it made me wonder if I hadn’t uncovered a secret bully within the family. If I had mentioned it to anyone else, they would have laughed at me. A thin and artistic child, Danny didn’t seem the bullying type; in fact, he made a more convincing target, a fate he probably avoided because his older brother, Chris, was one of the bigger kids in their grade school. So big, in fact, in the fourth grade, he boasted he could lift a sixth grader. I took him at his word.
Having a defender with the brawn to pick up an upperclassman, why would Danny be concerned with the rhyming taunts of bullies? Surely, his brother could … my thoughts came to a halt as a new picture emerged. Maybe Chris was the grade school bully. No, maybe Chris was just the muscle, the enforcer, while Danny was the true bully—the mastermind—the brains of the operation.
I could picture Danny sitting at home, much like he was now—hands folded, gazing at the opposite wall. Chris comes home from school with a handful of new bullying prospects. He hands Danny slips of paper with names written on them.
“Let’s see,” Danny says, “Claire, Claire… hairy Claire… Claire the bear. OK, what’s next?” He picks the next slip of paper from the pile. “Henry? Hmmm… Let’s see? Is it something unusual? Is it a girl named Henry?”
“No,” Chris explains. “He’s just a kid I want to tease.”
“Well, Henry just doesn’t work. Move on to someone else.”
“I was thinking maybe Henry Penry,” Chris says apologetically.
“Are you kidding? Henry Penry?” Danny snaps impatiently. “That’s ridiculous.”
“It’s not ridiculous,” Chris protests. “I already used it after school at the flag pole. I said, ‘Henry Penry, big fat Fenry.’”
Danny closes his eyes. He hangs his head with a long sigh, “Please, don’t ever do that again. You probably sounded like an idiot. How many times do I have to tell you? Don’t make up nick-names without talking to me first. I’m trying to keep up a consistent brand image.”
Our list never grew to more than a few names. With each new favorite written on the chalkboard, an earlier contender would be erased. A few names showed some staying power, but when they did, it was usually because we didn’t want to look at a blank chalk board. So, some names remained as place holders and others as bargaining chips. Both Vidya and I knew the names wouldn’t be used, but I would take mine down only when she was ready to take hers down.
“Raijin,” Vidya said.
I was beginning to think that the rules I carefully worded and cultivated into a list on the right side of the chalkboard were not really guidelines that Vidya and I had agreed upon, but rather rules that I made up and tried to enforce—my rules. Vidya didn’t make any rules, nor did she try to follow any. She just kept saying names and adding them to the list. The rules were all mine.
“Raijin?” I said. “Where did that come from?”
“I got it from the baby book,” Vidya explained. “It is the Japanese Thunder god.”
“OK, well… First, we’re not Japanese. Second, there is just no way that there is a pair of Mickey Mouse ears at Disney Land with ‘Raijin’ stitched on the front. And third,” I made a new rule up on the spot, “Raijin Hawkins sounds like a bare knuckle fighter from the bayou.”
Rule 3: The name has to go well with Hawkins.
“Why are you assuming the baby’s name will be Hawkins?” Vidya asked.
“Because, the baby’s name is going to be Hawkins,” I declared. “First of all, it’s customary. Second of all, it’s Hawkins!”
“It doesn’t have to be,” she warned.
Custom aside, this was sheer crazy talk. If your child can inherit a cool sounding name like Hawkins without a fuss, you don’t stand in the way. It is an absolute gift of fortune and heraldry.
“Maybe I want my baby to have my last name.” Vidya said.
“Really?” I said. “Was your name a big hit in high school? Do you want me to call Danny and see where he goes with it?”
“No,” Vidya said, abandoning her bluff. “I’ve had enough of that. A high school teacher of mine used to tease that I was heiress to the Ragu spaghetti sauce fortune.”
“That doesn’t happen with Hawkins,” I assured her. “When your name is Hawkins, just about the cleverest thing anyone thinks to call you is sir.”
“I don’t know if I want to give my baby a slave trader’s name,” Vidya said.
“Does it make more sense to choose a name solely to help our child identify with the oppressed people of the world? How would that ease the world’s suffering? I can see where this is going, and it’s not pretty. It ends with me, twenty years down the line, in a bar room knife fight with a boy named Sue.”
Vidya shook her head and let out a long sigh, “… but a slave trader?”
I shrugged, “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail.” And there it was, from Johnny Cash to Simon and Garfunkel, everything I knew about naming a child, I learned from a jukebox in 1972.
Names started to grab our attention—we’d find them in unexpected places—forget the baby books. The best place to find names is in the closing credits of movies. We wouldn’t even know we were looking or that baby names were on our minds—at a level of consciousness just above sublimation a name would grab me or Vidya. One night, Vidya and I looked up from a take-out tray of Buffalo wings. Our eyes locked and in two part harmony we said, “Evangeline.” Neither of us knew where it came from.
It hadn’t come from me. No one in my immediate family had a name that stretched past two syllables. Even my niece Jackie’s full name had been simplified, Ellis Island style. The traditional Jacqueline was truncated to a more Y2K friendly, Jacklyn.
We wrote Evangeline up on the board. We loved it. We loved it even more after we dissected it and made lists of possible nick names: Eve, Evie, Eva, Eve-Anne, Anne, Ange, Angel, Angie, and my favorite, Geline.
I helped Vidya off with her coat.
“Hello Paul,” Dora shouted as she crossed the room. “Only one more party. Only one more. You guys are the next,” she kissed me on the cheek then pointed me to the basement steps.
I found Vidya’s father, Bob, downstairs. He introduced me to a few of the men and made sure I had a drink in my hand. I wandered away when I could. Already, I missed the freedom of the driveway party a few weeks earlier. I hadn’t taken advantage of it at the time, standing in a corner with the two other expectant fathers, but I wanted to mix it up a bit at this party. I wanted to meet more of the men and get to know a little more about them. Mostly, I wanted to figure out which one of them was the barber.
The party took on a formality that I hadn’t expected from the gatherings I had attended in the past. It resembled some type of family caucus—a clan tribunal or tribal council. The two oldest men, Bob being one of them, sat in chairs facing each other. Other men dragged their folding chairs in circles of descending age order around the two elders as they told each other stories. I sat down around where I thought I was supposed to and looked on with keen attention. The stories volleyed back and forth with laughter and the rolling lilt of Guyanese Creole, a language made of sugar and garam masala. I didn’t understand a word of it.
Finding my place in the comparative timeline of the Guyanese men around me proved challenging. I had to look at the men closely, around the eyes. The tell-tales of age that are obvious from across a room in my family—the gray, thinning hair and weathered features that announce themselves suddenly at airport arrival gates are nearly invisible in Vidya’s family. I was surrounded by smooth, dark faces with heads of thick, black hair. It was easy to see why the barber was so well respected in the community.
By the time the ladies party upstairs wound down, I found my place with the other expectant fathers. I asked them about the way the chairs had been positioned earlier and they said they hadn’t noticed.
“So, have you thought about names yet?” Vijay, the taller of the two, asked.
“We’re still trying to figure out a boy’s name,” I said, “but just this week, we settled on a girl’s name. We both like Evangeline.”
They both nodded. “Like Evangeline Lilly?” Adesh commented.
“Who’s that?” I said.
“She’s an actress.” Adesh continued. “She plays Kate on Lost.”
I was crushed. “So what do you guys have for names?” I said.
I nodded and smiled when they told me the names they had chosen, but I was beside myself on the car ride home.
“Do you know what they’re naming their children?” I asked. “Here I am, newly initiated to Hindu culture, searching high and low—almost getting myself fired to find a nice Indian name for our child and these guys—two traditional Guyanese men who had Auntie Baba go back to Guyana to arrange marriages for them—do you know what they’re naming their daughters? Madison and Amelia.”
Vidya laughed. “Well, thanks for working so hard at it, but I guess you can stop. I mean, they’re real Guyanese – their wives know how to tie their own saris. If they don’t care about Indian names, I guess we shouldn’t knock ourselves out.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It started off as just a cool idea, you know? I thought a Hindu name might be nice. But then it became something else entirely – like I was being guided. I started seeing elephants everywhere.”
“You see them too?” Vidya whispered. “I thought it was only me.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I’ve been dreaming about baby elephants for weeks.”
“Does it mean something?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Vidya said. “I don’t know that much about dreams.”
“I don’t mean the dreams as much as the elephants,” I said. “Do elephants mean something, like in your family?”
“Why would they mean something in my family?”
“Well, there’s that god,” I explained. “In your parents’ house, in your cousin’s house, at every house I’ve taken my shoes off in there’s been a picture of Hindu gods, and one of them is always a god with an elephant head.”
“That’s Ganesh,” Vidya said, “the remover of obstacles.”
“Oh, I like that,” I said. “Good morning, Delighted One. Good morning to you, Remover of Obstacles. Yeah, that works. And his name’s Ganesh?”
“Ganesh, yeah… I guess Lord Ganesh is more appropriate,” Vidya said.
“Does he have any other names?”
“Well,” I said, “like Parvati. She has more than one name and one of them is Tara.”
“So, you want use the name Ganesh, but not if it’s going to be so Ganeshie?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m thinking something like Steve. Does anyone ever call him Steve?”
“I don’t think so,” Vidya said. “Oh, by the way, my mother says we have to find out the sex of the baby. She said it’s rude to invite people to a baby shower if we can’t tell them what color pajamas to buy. She says it makes people feel foolish.”
Vidya looked across to me in the passenger seat. We had gone so long without giving in and finding out the baby’s gender. Each month, before the obstetrician wheeled in the portable sonogram cart, I made a point of saying that we didn’t want the baby’s sex revealed. It was something I remembered from my childhood, from when my mother carried my younger sister and brothers. “Do you want a boy or a girl,” the neighbors would ask. “We just want a healthy baby,” we’d say. Part of the excitement of my mother’s pregnancies was the mystery of it. There was a new, whole person growing inside my mother, and we didn’t know who it was. We didn’t know anything about them. Not knowing if it was a boy or a girl was part of the fun. My mother had a house full of children—nonstop fun.
“Is it really such a big deal to people?” I asked. “Maybe I write a note to slip in the envelope with the shower invitation that says, ‘We haven’t found out the sex of the child, but if you are buying pajamas, we think it’s A-OK for girls to wear fire trucks and boys to wear butterflies?’”
“You can’t write something like that!” Vidya said. “Not with my family. They’ll go out of their minds. They’ll picket. To them there is a big difference between boys and girls.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Vidya said. “They’re not ready for that.”
“It’s up to you. If you want to find out the sex of the baby, you can ask at our next doctor’s visit,” I said, “but let me step out of the room. I’m not bucking tradition. I want to find out the old fashioned way. I don’t want to know if I have a son or daughter until your father’s barber comes to tell me.”
When we got back to our apartment, I picked up the chalkboard eraser. “We can wipe Evangeline off the list,” I said. “Evangeline Lilly plays Kate on Lost. We must have seen the name in the credits. I just don’t want a name that’s such an obvious pop culture reference.”
“I guess we can forget about Delilah too then,” Vidya said. “I was going to write it up there, from that Hey There, Delilah song. I thought it was pretty. I thought you’d like it, because I know it’s a name from the Bible.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Delilah’s a pretty name, and it is from the Bible, but Delilah was a temptress. I don’t think I’d want to name a daughter after her. It would be like naming her Jezebel.”
“Why,” Vidya said. “What did Jezebel do?”
I shrugged. “I don’t really know, but I’m sure it didn’t end well. There are a bunch of names from the Bible that we should stay away from.”
To the side of our names list, I drew a thick line in chalk. At the top, I wrote, “Biblical Names not Suitable for Children.” I made a quick list of boys’ and girls’ names that came to mind.
The final naming rule came suddenly, but unlike earlier rules, the language did not lend itself to broad interpretation. The rule was framed for an isolated event. The rhetoric was direct and unmistakable.
Rule 4: We will not name our child Sammy Davis Jr.
Vidya had asked me to come right home after work. The invitations for the baby shower had arrived and she wanted to get an early start in stuffing and addressing the envelopes. I opened the door to an empty apartment. The dog walked over to bump me gently. I hung my jacket up and took a look at the chalkboard. I put check mark next to an addition Vidya had made to the girls’ list, and then I turned to see the abomination she had written on the boys’ list.
“Sammy Davis Jr!?” I screeched as Vidya came through the door. “We can’t name our child Sammy Davis Jr. I don’t even know if it’s legal.”
“What are you talking about,” Vidya said in defense. “Who said anything about naming the baby Sammy Davis Jr?”
I swung my arms toward the chalkboard in dramatic presentation, like it was the Ta-Da moment in a magic show.
“That isn’t Sammy Davis Jr,” Vidya explained. “I’m sorry I wrote them all on one line like that, but I was running out the door. I was thinking about what you said the other night, about Bible names, so that’s where I came up with the first one—Samuel, Sammy, Sam. He’s not on the bad list, is he?”
“No,” I said. “Samuel’s one of the good guys.”
“Then I was thinking about Tara and how you’d like Ganesh to sound more like Steve,” Vidya went on. “I came up with a few things out of that. One was Devi, this kind of Hindu Goddess energy. I thought we could go with David or Dave, but I already have a few cousins named Dave, so I thought we’d change it just a little. That’s how I came up with Davis.”
“Wow,” I said. “You had an inspired day.”
“Not bad, right?” Vidya said. “The last one is Jonah. I just like the sound of it.” Vidya noticed my hesitation. “What’s the matter? You don’t seem to like them.”
“I do. I like them and after months of us not being able to come up with much of anything, I’m thrilled that you found three strong candidates in one afternoon.”
“But?” she said.
“It just takes a little getting used to, I guess,” I said. “You see, the Bible is a big book. There is the Old Testament and the New Testament. Usually Catholics are given Saint’s names or names from the New Testament. Samuel, David and Jonah are Old Testament names.”
“Is that why all of the same names just keep being used over and over again?” Vidya said.
“I guess it is,” I admitted. “Give me a minute. I’ll bet I can think of a New Testament name that isn’t overused.” I stared at the chalk board for a minute. I closed my eyes and rubbed my temples. I thought over the well worn names from the Gospels and the children who sat next to me in third grade at Immaculate Heart of Mary. None of the names said anything new to me. They brought to mind the same old doubters, zealots, evangelists and martyrs they always had. Then my eyes opened and I saw the light. “I’ve got it,” I announced. “I’ve got the best name from the Bible.”
“Jesus?” Vidya said.
“No,” I qualified. “Maybe the second best name from the Bible.”
“Well,” Vidya said. “What is it?”
“How is that’s the best name?” Vidya quipped. “That’s not even a good name.”
“It’s a good name because Lazarus was His friend,” I said. “Everyone else is a disciple or an apostle. They all follow Jesus around. Not Lazarus. Jesus goes to see him. Jesus weeps for him. He’s the only person I know of that is described as His friend.”
“I’m not sold,” Vidya said. “Lazarus is a pretty heavy name for a little boy to carry around. What would we call him?”
“Lazlo?” I suggested.
“That,” Vidya said, “is ridiculous.”
I wrote it up on the chalkboard and asked Vidya to sit with it for a few days.
Vidya pulled the shower invitations out of a shopping bag and handed me the sample—a neutral creamsicle color scheme with an elephant on it. We ordered a take-out dinner and ate in front of the TV while we stuffed envelopes. We’d pause now and then when a show would end and the credits rolled up the screen.
Over the next few days I worked the phone. I lobbied with family and friends, nudging them for their support in my Lazarus campaign. I wasn’t able to garner much backing. Most were speechless. Some said, “Wow.”
“Lazarus Hawkins… ” one friend said, “What comes to mind is a prison guard or a warden—someone with a shotgun on his shoulder yelling at a chain gang.”
“Lazarus Hawkins,” my brother Andy said, “sounds like an NFL draft pick. It’s a name for a big, black linebacker.”
“You do realize that this child probably isn’t going to be white,” I said.
“Yeah,” Andy said. “I realize that. I mean, it crossed my mind just as the words were coming out of my mouth.”
You can’t sneak out of a Guyanese party. You can’t just grab your coat, say goodbye to a few people and slip out the side door, because you’ve left your shoes at the front door. I’d want to remember that for the future. I’d want to build a habit of keeping a spare pair of shoes in the car for quick escapes.
I think of parties I’ve been to in the past where things have gotten a little wild, people had gotten tipsy or combative—how many shoes would I have lost in college alone? Maybe that is why the men’s party is usually outside in the garage, so we can all just keep our shoes on—it is easier than trying to track down the owners of abandoned shoes in the days following the party.
We were at the end of the evening. Vidya sat on the couch by the front door with her father. Dora had just gone into the kitchen for tea. I had my coat on and was in the middle of an awkward shoe dance—carrying small piles of gifts to the front door, maintaining my balance to slip my shoes on, continuing with the gifts to the car, returning, kicking my shoes off and collecting other piles of gifts. I was able to catch only bits and pieces of the conversation Vidya was having with her parents.
“So,” Dora said, setting the tea on the coffee table. “Do you know the names? You must know the names.”
I didn’t want to miss this. So I hauled the last bag full of gifts out of the car and ran back in. Vidya seemed to be building up to something as I took my coat off. It was like she was waiting for a drum roll.
“OK,” Vidya said. “I was thinking of Devi, and how it has influenced so many names in our family—my middle name and all the cousins we have named Dave. But I want my baby to have his own name, so I thought of Davis.”
“Davis?” Dora said. “Is that for a boy? No, that is for a girl. What name do you have for a boy?”
“No,” Vidya said. “Davis is the boy name.”
“I’ve never heard Davis as a boy name,” Bob declared. “Davis is a girl name.”
“No,” Vidya looked to me for help. “Davis is a boy name.”
“David is a popular name,” I said. “Davis is usually used as a last name, but when it is a first name, it is a name for a man, not for a woman.”
“David is the name for a man,” Bob said. Davis is the name for a woman. It is a girl name.”
It was bullying, plain and simple. We thought we had vetted the names through a reliable bully engine—the minds of elementary school children, but even minds keenly focused on the Darwinian necessity for survival look for a rhyme or a reason to make a name into something foolish. But that is child’s play, not true bullying. True bullying isn’t about coming off clever. It is about control. It is about ensuring misery.
I wanted to scoop Vidya up and run off to the car, but all I could do was walk into the hallway and pick up her shoes.
We were quiet in the car for a couple of miles. I waited for Vidya to show some sign that she wanted to talk.
“They ruined it for me,” Vidya said. “I can’t use it now. I don’t even want to think about it anymore.”
We were back to having no boys names. We would have to start all over again. We weren’t going to pull any of the names out of the chalk dust and I didn’t even think of trying to bring Lazarus back from the dead.
Vidya had been in active labor for about three and a half hours and she was getting tired. It was longer than expected. The doctor had left the room twice to deliver other babies.
Over the last few weeks Amelia and Madison had arrived with stress-free anecdotes. We all laughed when Madison’s mother told us her labor was only slightly longer than her drive to the hospital. We thought that quick, easy childbirth was the fashion of the season. We were fashionably late.
Everything was still OK, but with each passing minute, everything became a little less OK.
“OK,” Meredith said. “We’re getting to the point where we may have to do something. I don’t want it to get to that place, but the baby’s been in the birth canal for a while now and you are getting weaker. We are going to try to push for a little bit longer. But we might have to make a decision soon.”
That didn’t sound good to me. That sounded like danger. That sounded like knife. I was thinking baby, precious baby and I heard something like knife, slicing, cutting, piercing knife.
“OK, mamma,” I said to Vidya. “Do you understand what is happening? Do you understand what the doctor, uhhh… Meredith, said? If you are too tired now… If you don’t have the strength to push any more, she’s going to have to do something—she’s going to have to cut. There is going to be surgery. The baby has to come out. Can you do this? Can you do it on the next contraction? Otherwise, we have to get ready for the other thing.”
“What should I think about?” Vidya said. “What should I picture in my head? What should I visualize?”
I looked at Meridith. The nurse was far too busy exploring the positions she could achieve with the ball joint of Vidya’s hip. Meredith and I shrugged to each other, “Tell her to picture having a baby,” she said.
“Picture this,” I said, remembering something from the birthing class that wasn’t about poop. I closed my fingers into a fist. “This is your pelvic bone.” I bent my head forward and pressed my fist against the top of it. “OK,” I said. “The baby’s head is here, held back by the bone. What needs to happen is this …” I ducked my head under my fist and stretched my neck toward the ceiling as if I were lifting my head out of water to breathe. The gesture was identical to pulling the hood of a sweatshirt off my head, except for my dramatic gasp.
“OK,” Vidya said, closing her eyes to translate my description into a useful visualization. “I got it. I got it.”
The rest of us looked to the lie detector to gauge the approach of the next tide.
“Here it comes,” Meredith said. “P U S H… O N E… T W O… T H R E E… F O U R… F I V E… S I X… S E V E N… E I G H T…”
“Go to twelve! Go to twelve!” Vidya shrieked.
“N I N E… T E N… E L E V E N… T W E L V E…”
Vidya’s tension dropped and she fell into the bed as if she had been suspended above it. I wiped my hand across her brow, “You’re doing great, mamma. I’m so proud of you.” She looked at me, her eyes half closed—exhausted. There was a different energy in the room, a calmness, a resign. Vidya didn’t look like she’d be able to rally again and push with any force or effort. I turned to look at the doctor.
“Congratulations,” she said. “It’s an Ella.”
Awake and alert, Ella looked at us for a moment before she opened her mouth, a toothless mouth half the size of her head. She screamed. A flurry of activity followed—Ella in my arms, Ella in Vidya’s arms, medical routines, bracelets…
“OK,” the nurse said, after we had held Ella for a while. “We’ll take her for a full pediatric exam and we’ll bring her back in an hour.”
Vidya and I made a few phone calls and fell asleep. I woke to a banshee wail. I was on my feet before I realized it was my daughter’s cry. I jumped to the side of the basinet. I slid one hand under her head and my other hand under her bottom. She quieted down as I slid her into the bend of my left arm.
“Hello, Ella Grace Hawkins, my girl, my girl… I know. I know, there is so much going on here. Do you know me? Do you recognize my voice? It’s not the first time you’ve heard it, is it? No… I’ve been waiting to meet you.
“We’re going to let Mamma sleep a little if we can. We’ll wake her up in a couple of minutes.
“There are a lot of things I want to talk to you about. I guess I’ll start with your name. Do you know what we are going to call you?
“We’re going to call you Ella, Ella Grace Hawkins. Do those words sound nice? Soon, and forever after that, those words will be your name. When someone says those words, they will be talking about you.
“Right now, for a short and dwindling time, those words are something else. They are a poem. It’s a poem your mother and I wrote together to give to you. It took us months, but I think we did pretty well. It is a lovely poem.
“While it is still a poem, let me recite it for you and tell you what it means.
“Ella Grace Hawkins
“Your first name is Ella for the elephants that walked and danced and rolled through your mother’s dreams. I don’t know what they were doing there, but I began to see them too. I think they have something to do with God – the part of God that watches where we go and removes the obstacles in our path. I’d like to think that it means you will have a life of few obstacles, but that is unlikely, and when it comes down to it, not a very interesting life to have. But it may mean you’ll have a gift to help others with the obstacles they trip over.
“Your last name is Hawkins. That is my name too. I want you to have it so you will always know that you are my girl. It is a strong name that people like to say. You will find, Ella Hawkins, my girl, that people will like you before they meet you. They will want to be your friend because the strength of your name helps them feel safe.
“In the middle of your name, Ella Grace, we have hidden a prayer. Your name will be a blessing, so that all who speak of you and think of you will be blessed.
“There is one other thing, my girl. You are a descendant of both slave traders and slaves. I want to mention this to you and I’ll remind you of it as you grow. I hope that in knowing this, you will have an advantage, that you will mature with an understanding that some people take half a lifetime to realize and some never comprehend at all.
“You will shape your life with the decisions you make and when you make your choices, I want you to remember that every possibility lies within you—you can hold yourself captive, or you can set yourself free.”
We heard the sheets of the hospital bed rustle behind us.
“Is that Ella?” Vidya said as she woke.
“Yes, it is,” I said. “She’s right here asking about her mamma.”
“You see, the poem has become your name,” I whispered to my daughter. “It is no longer a poem. The words no longer carry the meanings of words. Now, they mean only you.”
“What are you whispering to her?” Vidya asked.
“I’m just making her feel welcome,” I said. “I told her she is going to like it here, that we always have plenty of chocolate.”
I brought Ella over to the bed and placed her in Vidya’s arms. Vidya fed her and they both drifted off to sleep. After a few minutes, I picked Ella up and put her back in the basinet. I pulled my chair to a spot in the room from where I could watch both of them as they slept. The morning went by in a slow, dreamy waltz of waking, feeding and sleeping.
Both Vidya and Ella were asleep when the first visitors arrived. My mother, father and sister Marie walked quietly through the door. I nudged Vidya and walked over to greet them.
“We’re all a little sleepy,” I said, “but we’re glad you came.”
It was a short visit. They congratulated Vidya and me. My mother and Marie took turns holding Ella.
“This is your Aunt Marie,” I said.
“Just Marie, please,” Marie said. “All of the kids just call me Marie.”
“And this is your Mamas and Pop-pop,” I said.
My nieces and nephews, beginning with the oldest, Raymond, had called my mother Mamas for close to twenty years. Pop-pop had been a name my brothers, sisters and I had called our grandfather. I remember it sounding strange when my father adopted the name, but he seemed to grow into it well.
Soon, they grabbed their coats and snuck away so that Vidya could rest.
A short while later, just as Ella was rousing again, Bob and Dora came through the door, Dora holding an old, plaid workman’s Thermos.
“This is barley soup,” she said, handing it to me before pulling off her coat. “You must give it to Vidya. Feed it to her. It is very good for the baby.”
I nodded and place the container on a nearby table.
“The baby is just waking up,” I said. “Let me get her settled. I’m sure Vidya would like to handle the introductions.”
I changed Ella’s diaper and swaddled her, wrapping her in the light blanket like a burrito, and brought her over to Vidya.
“Dis yu granma an dis yu granpa,” Vidya said, making the introductions in Guyanese Creole. “An dis yu firs granbaby, yu grandahta, Ella.”
Bob and Dora stood proudly by the side of the bed as Vidya nursed Ella. We chatted a little bit about the details of the labor. Dora wrote down the exact time of birth to consult with her pundit.
“I think she’s done,” Vidya said as Ella fell back to sleep. “Why don’t you try to burp her?”
I put Ella on my shoulder and patted her on her back until she burped. I turned to Dora, “Would you like to hold your granddaughter?”
Dora’s face lit up. She found a seat and held her arms out.
“Oh, Bob,” I said. “Would you want to hold her first, because I think once Grandma gets a hold of her, she might not give her up.”
“No,” Bob waved me away. “That is good. Let Grandma hold the baby.”
I placed Ella in Dora’s hands. “Is that right?” I said. “Is it Grandma and Grandpa? My parents were here just a little while ago. They’ll be Mamas and Pop-pop. Those are names their other grandchildren call them, but Ella is your first grandchild. What should she call the two of you?”
“Grandma and Grandpa,” Bob said, “yes. OK. But in Guyana it is different. It is different for the mother’s family and the father’s family. Like uncle is different. The child calls the mother’s brother Agee. She calls the father’s brother Chacho. So, it is different for us too. The child calls the grandma from the mother Nanny. And me, the grandpa from the mother, she calls Nanna.”
“Nanny and Nanna?” I asked.
“Yes,” he nodded.
“Oh, OK,” I said, my smile beaming.
“What, OK?” Nanna said.
“Nothing,” I said. “It’s just that Nanna is a girl’s name.”