Saturday, August 6, 2011


Love it;
Hate it;
Change it;
Rearrange it.

Like the image in the mirror;
Like the face in photos;
The signatures upon documents;
And finally words carved in granite --
It’s you!

The Names of My Life[i]

Most of us have a love-hate relationship with our names.  Our names, like our faces and our bodies, are outward representations of who we are, and we are frequently dissatisfied with these.  When the person we are inside doesn’t match the outward expressions, we want change; and in many ways, our names are the easiest things to change.  I’ve changed my name over the years, and others have chosen other names for me.  I now answer to a variety, and each represents a somewhat different me.  Through the “names” I have chosen and the names I have been given, the story of my live evolves.  The one conclusion I have reached regarding names is that love and context are the only important attributes.  Any name can be wonderful and dear if given and used in the context of love.

The following tracing of my name is so personal that it will probably only be of interest to my children and grandchildren, but it is worth recording for them.  For others, it may only serve to raise awareness of the “names” of their lives.

My Mother, Myrtis Lee Heard Jackson choose to name her daughter Frances Ruth Jackson.  Frances was for her mother, Clora Frances Nolen Heard; for her brother, Francis (France) Hewell Heard; and for her husband’s maternal grandfather, Francis Marion Adams.  Ruth was for her beloved younger sister Vera Ruth Heard Ballis.  She gave me two names, and she was determined that both should be used.  Her will prevailed for 18 years.  Today, when I answer the phone and someone says, “Frances Ruth,” I know I’m speaking with family or a classmate from Logansport High School.  Those who knew me before 1957 and all my relatives consistently use both my names.  My Mother was a powerful and long-lasting influence.

As a teen, I hated my double name, which I realize now followed a very Southern tradition.  In most small communities of the South, there were only a few families, and many of these were large.  Given names (like mine) were chosen to honor older family members.  For this reason, there could be a number of individuals in the same community with identical names.  The use of the double name was necessary to prevent confusion.  Then there was the “Barbary Allen” effect.  Southern double names almost invariably follow the meter pattern of traditional ballads, with two stressed syllables (with or without intervening unstressed syllables).  In this way we get our Billy Bobs and Mary Annes, and all kinds of Lees, Mays, Fayes, and Jacks.  It makes for nice poetry, but try to rhyme “Ruth.”

At Northwestern University, I strategically and deliberately changed my name to Frances, and those who came to know me between 1957 and 1970 call me by that single name.  Of course in 1959, I married Charles, and in the universal practice of the culture of my youth, I became Frances Freeman.  I rather liked the alliteration, and this is my name to all those who knew me in Shreveport during the 1960’s.

I was pretty satisfied with being Frances Freeman, but my move to New York in 1970 resulted in an unintentional change of name.  My New York colleagues and friends shortened Frances to Fran.  I believe Martin Adams was the first to make the switch, and I was too in awe of the man to correct him.  Under his influence, all my colleagues in the field of stuttering call me simply Fran. 

In New York, my conscious was raised, and I began to regret the loss of my birth name – Jackson.  Now, Frances Jackson-Freeman, is an abomination of meter and redundancy, so I settled for an exchange of middle initial.  I ceased to be Frances R. Freeman and became (at least in my signature) Frances J. Freeman.  Only when I published did I reclaim my birth-name as Frances Jackson Freeman.

With age, my attitude toward my middle name has shifted.  Just as my name grew shorter during my youth, it has grown longer as I aged.  As I knew my Aunt Vera better, my love and appreciation for her grew, and the connection of our names became dear to me.  Equally important, I gave the middle name “Ruth” to my younger daughter, Denise, and this name connection is now precious to me for her sake.  Finally, mourning the loss of my Mother made all things associated with her (even my middle name) more valued.  Consequently, in many situations, I now use the WHOLE THING – Frances Ruth Jackson Freeman – and I guess this is what they will carve on my tombstone.

Of course, this is the history of my “public” name.  Of equal importance are the names I have acquired in the “personal” realm.  In 1960 I became a mother.  I made no effort to influence the name my children call me, and it has varied over the years, from “Mommie” to “Mother” to “Mom.”  Today if one of them uses “Mother,” it is usually with an emphasis on the last syllable, and means I have done something really dumb.  But Mom works quite well.  After the birth of my first grandchild, I became “Nana,” possibly the dearest name of all. Not only am I Nana to my four grandchildren, but most of their friends have adopted the name, so I’m Nana to a lot of folks.

As joint pastor of Bethel United Methodist Church, I acquired yet another name – Sister Frances.  The first time I was called by this title, I did a double take.  I rather expected to see a nun in habit standing beside me.  But everything is “context,” and clearly the wife of “Brother Charles” could only be “Sister Frances.” I answer to the name, because I love the people who use it.
Charles has called me by many names over the years, most acceptable in polite society.  However, the two that have most amused our friends and family are “Beau” and “Doc.” I actually can’t remember the exact referent for “Beau” but I know it was associated with a “dumb blonde joke.”  “Doc” was born as an imitation of the Bugs Bunny, “What’s up, Doc?” cartoon line, and Charles began using it when I received my Ph.D.  Only Charles and Henry (our parrot) have the nerve to use this one.  Henry often cries loudly, in Charles’ voice, “Doc!!”  “Doc!” and everyone laughs.  Then Henry laughs (in my voice), and everyone cracks up.
The only people to call me “Fannie” were my cousin Sara Jo (note the double name) and my brother Jacky.  They were both younger, and I beat them up rather severely on the single occasion they used this one.  Sara eventually compromised on “Frannie” and I tolerated it.  Jacky used it when he really wanted to annoy me.  They are both gone now, and when someone calls me “Frannie,” I cry.

 Over the years, I became Aunt Frances (or Aunt Frances Ruth) to nephews and nieces and now great nephews and nieces, and to a growing number of younger cousins, who made me an honorary "Aunt."  The name is as precious to me as those who use it.

Over the years, some of my best friends  have called me simply, "Girl."  When I answer the phone, and the voice on the other end says, "Hey, Girl!"  I know I'm going to enjoy the conversation.  As the number of those who call me "Girl," has been reduced, my appreciation of those who do has increased.  I hope I am gone before there is no one left to call me, Girl.

During the 1960’s I was a public school speech-language pathologist in Shreveport.  Some of my children gave me the name, “Mrs. Freedom.”  It was the “Star-spangled banana” effect.  When confronted with an unfamiliar word, children will substitute a familiar word.  “Freeman” was unfamiliar and “Freedom” was familiar. Freedom was an important word in the 1960’s.  I vividly remember the last time I was called by this name.  I took my daughters skating in a rink in Shreveport.  Never a good skater, I was cautiously inching my way around the rink, when I heard a loud voice cry, “Mrs. Freedom.”  Startled, I looked up to see a tall, handsome youth racing at me, arms outstretched.  We collided, and I didn’t fall because his arms were wrapped tightly around me.  As I looked up into his face, his delighted expression changed to one of amazed disappointment.

You don’t know me!” he said.  And suddenly I did recognize him.  Fifteen years fell away, and I saw the little boy who had come to me in the first grade.  Like several others I worked with over the years, he had been totally unintelligible.  When he entered school, no one outside his family, could understand anything he said.  By the end of the first grade, everyone understood him.  By the end of the second, he only had traces of a problem; and by the third grade, his speech was without blemish.  I joyfully embraced the young man that boy had become.  That chance meeting marked an epiphany for Mrs. Freedom.  I came away with a full heart.  I knew that my existence on this earth had been justified. If I never did another worthy act, my influence on this single man/child, made my life meaningful.

In addition to the names, there are titles.  I am Mrs., Dr., and Rev., and each title came with a price.  I earned them all, and each is a source of pride. The best thing about having titles is the realization that they count for little.  What we do, not the titles we claim, are the only meaningful honors in life. I conclude as I began: The only really important attribute of a name is the context in which it is given and the love with which it is used.  Any and every name is wonderful and dear when uttered with love. 

[i] This piece was inspired by recent communications with an old friend Bob (Bobby) Blackmon

1 comment:

  1. Well, I had no idea my brief comment to Frances (or is it Frances Ruth?): "Decades ago I gave up Bobby in favor of Bob," would inspire such a thesis on her own name. In deed, I have alway been a bit sensitive about my own name. As is common in the South, I was given a nickname as my legal name-- Bobby. I got a rather good middle name-- Glenn. Also, as is common in the South, during my early years as a kid, many people called me Bobby Glenn. As I got into my teen years I began to realize that my name was not exactly wrong, but a bit strange. I once asked my father, "Why did a man with such a sophisticated name--William Joshua--give his son the name Bobby Glenn?" He replied, "It was your Mom's idea, and I can believe that, because on her side of the family there were relatives whose names were Jerry Wayne, Billy Ray, Billy Joe etc, etc., not Gerald Wayne or William Raymond or William Joseph. There seemed to be an attitude that, "whatever I'm going to call my kid, that's the legal name I will assign to her or him." So over he years I made an effort to shed Bobby and replace him with Bob.

    But, you know, you really can't do that, because there are hundreds of legal documents in life that require your LEGAL name. During my adult life I have lived in both the South and the North. In the North people find Bobby as a legal name REALLY strange, but of course, not so in the South. For a time I was chair of an academic department at the State University of New York in Syracuse. One of our trustees and I became good friends, and he insisted on calling me Robert. He once said, "You are the only person I have every met whose nickname is Robert." Indeed.

    I currently live in Upstate New York and have done so for a total of 20 years, in two different stints. I am now almost 76 years old, and I am constantly explaining my name,as I have had to do all my life.

    Now, on the grand scale of things, world peace, terrorism, hunger, poverty, homelessness, war, silly presidential debates.............the list is very long......being given a nickname as a legal name isn't that important. But don't do it to your children. One of them might someday get a Ph.D. and become a university dean, and who wants to be "Dean Bobby Glenn?"

    Yes, please call me Bob! :>)