When I was a child, I thought of my mother’s sister Mary as the Dowager Empress of the World. She was tall and stately and would sit on her chair like a queen on a throne, her adoring daughters dancing attendance on her as if she thoroughly deserved it. In truth, she probably did, as I remember her best for her marvelous laughter. Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth, says the poem, and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.*
She had an outsized, robust approach to life that somehow managed to combine outrageous wit and grace with merriment, and she, unlike my mother, knew about sex and heartily approved of it. My mother disapproved of Mary altogether, which amused her sister no end and prompted her to say outrageous things she knew would get my mother’s goat. But there was history between them and an oddball twist of fate that neither of them could alter.
The tale of the Christening that changed their destinies was, like all tales of my mother’s family, a lollapalooza. My grandfather it seemed, had declared that his first-born daughter should be named Catherine, after his beloved and long-lost mother. But in those times, it wasn’t customary for a father to attend the Christening of his child, so he entrusted the task of naming to Aunt Marie Antoinette, a mystic of some talent whose psychic specialty was her ability to speak with the dead, but only after they’d tapped on the wall three times to wake her up for a rousing midnight chat.
How Catherine Became Mary
Aunt Marie Antoinette, believe it or not, didn’t care for my grandfather, and didn’t give a tinker’s dam what he wanted to name the baby, when everyone Catholic knew a first born girl-child was supposed to be Christened Mary. So, “yes, yes I know she must be named after your sainted mother, Thomas,” she said to him, as she left the house with the babe secure on her breast like a great brooch, and her intent to do as she pleased equally well placed in her heart, where Mary, the Mother of God would be happy to see it.
She performed her godmothering task to perfection, not forgetting to have the priest read the gospel of St. John over the newborn to stave off convulsions, as every good Irish Catholic knows is necessary, and when the priest asked portentously what name have you chosen for this child? She answered Mary with absolute conviction.
I’m told my Grandfather’s rage could have cleared Cleveland when he found he’d been thwarted by an 87 pound wisp with direct ties to the Virgin, and the temerity to shout him down. I’m told he beat my grandmother soundly to punish her for her sister’s treachery, but Aunt Marie Antoinette said she’d pray for his soul and ask God to forgive him his bad temper.
Thus, when a second girl-child appeared a year later, the precious Catherine name was still up for grabs. This time Thomas marched to the Church himself to avoid foul play and had my mother christened Catherine, after his beloved mother.
“He hated me for it, of course,” my mother explained to me sonorously, when I, yet another Catherine, was told the story. “You see he wanted the most beautiful child to be the Catherine. Instead, due to Aunt Marie’s trickery, I, the ugly duckling, was the one who inherited the name. He never forgave me for it,” she said with perfect Irish logic. Thus, I believe, my mother’s relationship with her sister Mary was sealed in stone from the cradle onward.
The PreNatal Perpetrator
I, though young, understood completely, because I knew my mother hated me for a similarly abstruse reason. I had inadvertently done-in her mother while I was still residing in the womb, four months before I was born. No easy feat for a fetus to pull off, mind you. Here’s how it happened:
One night when she had just married, my mother was awakened from a deep dream by a vision in which she saw her mother’s funeral procession entering a church she’d never seen before, one that was hung inside and out with scaffolding. My mother saw herself quite clearly, kneeling beside her mother’s casket, awash in grief and obviously pregnant.
Clairvoyant Catherine didn’t need chicken entrails to interpret the omens: to keep her mother alive, she simply had to stay un-pregnant, for none of this could come to pass if all of the vision was not fulfilled.
So for seven years she managed by hook, crook or abstinence, to avoid pregnancy, quite a feat I imagine in a Catholic marriage without benefit of birth control, and quite scandalous, I expect to the rest of the clan who were busy producing heirs.
After seven years, the unthinkable occurred and I managed to sneak into her unwilling womb against all odds and her best defenses. Sure enough, five months later, my grandmother, whom I would never know, took ill and died. Grandma’s dying wish was to be buried not from their parish church, but from one she had prayed in when first she got here from Ireland. So my dutiful mother made arrangements, only to arrive at the church in New York City to find it hung with scaffolding, just as it had been in her prescient vision.
As anyone could plainly see, I was the felonious fetus who’d caused the loss of my grandmother’s life – a fact which my mother occasionally pointed out to me lest I forget. “It wasn’t your fault, but Fate’s,” she would say lugubriously, “but the fact remains that had you never been born, my mother would still be alive. I loved her more than anyone else on earth.” Certainly more than I love you, the obvious codicil.
Often, when I saw my mother look at me with the unfathomable, silent sadness that was her hallmark, I wondered if she were thinking how much she wished she could trade me in for her mother, long dead by my unwitting embryonic hand.
But back to the Catherine issue. All through her childhood it seems, my grandfather would berate my mother for having filched the name meant for her more beautiful sister. “You’re not fit to bear so grand a name,” he would say, “pinched and spavined as you are.” At least he had a fine vocabulary.
Poor Catherine had been born with Saturn in her first house, a damnably depressive aspect that tends to keep even the most exquisite from ever feeling beautiful, so the deck was stacked against my mother from the get-go… I know that now in perfect hindsight, where we always know everything. I also know that she was beautiful. Her sorrow became my bane — perhaps it was her revenge for my having robbed her of her beloved mum. But of course her sorrow was not her fault any more than having been born with an unfortunate Saturn was. The Universe has its own mysterious ways of making us who we are, against all odds.
Manu: Giver of The Law
When my oldest daughter, Bronwyn, began to speak, she named my mother Manu. Inasmuch as it meant Giver of the Law in Hindi, it seemed an inspired choice . My mother, you see, emanated a forcefield so great it seemed to have its own atmosphere and gravity – so we adopted the name and to her dying day and beyond, Manu is who she was for us. But here’s the kicker: Just before she died my mother told me she’d never liked this nom de guerre. “But you never told us,” I countered, shocked that she hadn’t protested.
“No. I never did,” she replied.
So, I’ve wondered since if name trauma was simply an inevitability she accepted as a cross she was meant to bear, or if she never fought the name because she knew it was so apt. Yet I wished I’d known it hurt her heart – it would have been so simple a hurt to avoid.
Names Carry Power
My Native friends believe names carry power on their sound vibrations. Many tribal people give an infant a temporary childhood name, not bestowing a true name until after puberty when individual character has been formed and talents have surfaced. It wouldn’t do to be called Swift Arrow if you turned out to be one who trips over his own feet. So I wonder now, how much of my mother’s fate was sealed by the sounds that destiny chose to whisper.
It troubles me to this moment that I never knew the name Manu pained her. I can’t help but wonder: had she been called Mary instead of Catherine on that fateful Christening day, would she have been more loved? Had she never been called Manu would she have been able to love those who loved her, more?
* from the poem High Flight, by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
© Cathy Cash Spellman/The Wild Harp & Co. Inc 2012