I was named Holly Christensen at birth. Seven years later, I walked into a courthouse in Toledo, Ohio with my mother and her second husband of two years. I came out Holly Slusher. It was the early seventies and along with a name change, my official birth certificate was permanently altered deleting my biological father from all records and replacing his information with that of Mr. Slusher.
When I was nineteen, my mother and Mr. Slusher, both of whom had long been involved with the parties they would each later marry, divorced. Afterwards, my stepfather and I saw each other on occasion and then without incident, sometime in my mid-twenties, we stopped. Around that time, I went to the courthouse in Columbus, Ohio where I was a student at Ohio State, and changed my name back to Holly Christensen. I did so not as a repudiation of my stepfather, though Slusher was easy taunting fodder throughout a childhood where I was frequently the new kid, but because Holly Christensen is my name.
In reclaiming my name, I staked out my allegiance, some small sense of belonging to my historical past, while self-determining my future. If ever there was an adult in my life who made me feel wanted and loved, it was my grama, Dorothy Christensen. She always claimed me as hers, even when she wasn’t happy with me. There was nothing that could have caused us to lose contact with each other—neither miles nor time apart. Even now, nearly seven years after her death, I talk to her in quiet moments when I am alone.
As an adult, I have never taken a man’s last name. I never will.
My first litmus test in naming my children has always been the French pronunciation. Anyone who suggested a name immediately heard me pronounce the name with a French accent and, when possible, a French translation. You say Monica, I say Monique. You say Stephen, I say Étienne. I did this because, in my opinion, most words sound better in French than they do in English, especially names. All names, in fact, except for my name, which is unfortunately pronounced, “Oh-Lee,” sounding not unlike a call for pigs to slop.
Traditionally, the Sioux Nation would not name a child until the child revealed his or her true nature, often only when they were several years old (and the name could again change, later in life, if and when the person changed). Until receiving their first name, Sioux babies were given generic placeholder names identifying their birth order. Such a system would have saved me three times from the pressure of turning a birth certificate in a timely manner combined with the anxiety that the reluctantly agreed upon name was wrong for the child.
In most name books, Claude is typically defined as “lame,” which is direct reference to the Roman emperor, Claudius. Claudius was dismissed by many in his family because a childhood illness had caused him to limp and left him partially deaf. Fortunately, my Claude, a serious distance runner, has strong legs, but for years he felt crippled by dyslexia. Emperor Claudius overcame his limp in his teens and proved to be an astute, if not provocative, historian. My Claude overcame his learning disability through dogged discipline, and earned entrance and substantial scholarships to a great university. Meeting the challenges of his one-time affliction may well have shaped Claude into the young man he now is—tenacious, hard-working and concerned for a society that is fair and just for all its citizens (a concern that grows with each political science course he takes).
Claude’s name was chosen before his birth, but holding him in my arms, I felt instantly that Claude was not the right name for my newborn son. My ex-husband dismissed my emotional pleas to talk about a different name as Simply a problem with your postpartum hormones, Holly. You agreed to the name, you lived with it for five months. We are not discussing any other names. Two years ago, I found a letter I had written to my ex-husband in the weeks after Claude was born. In it, I wrote what hurt the most was that rather than discuss my concerns about the baby’s name, he instead walked out of the room each time I brought up the subject. At the county health department, where we turned in the paperwork for Claude’s birth certificate two weeks after his homebirth, I remained in the car with my baby, sobbing with hollow heartbreak. I wanted to name him Luke.
Hugo means “bright mind and spirit,” which my Hugo certainly has. He is also huge in all that he is and does. At each preschool parent-teacher conference, Hugo’s teacher, Miss Peg, would tell me, “We’re trying to get Hugo to calmly ask his friends to stop doing something he doesn’t like instead of yelling right away.” Twelve years later, we are still working on that. But when happy, Hugo is equally demonstrative and at such moments will often throw his arms around me, pinning my own arms to my sides, and swing me around the kitchen until I tell him to “Put me down!”
Those of us who live with him have long observed that Hugo functions best when busy enough to keep him on his mark. Like a rubber band stretched just far enough so that it can fly across the sky. Occasionally he allows his schedule to stretch him to the point of breaking, and when he does, Hugo snaps at all who come near, often screaming at me not to yell at him when all I have said is something like, “The clothes in the living room that I told you to pick up yesterday are still there, go and get them now.”
Or, he will yell, “Jesus Christ, Jules, do you have to make your lunch in front of the damn coffee machine? Some of us haven’t had our first cup yet!” (Yeah, we noticed.)
Yet this same child makes me laugh harder and more often than any other. He has always been nostalgic and even back in the days of Miss Peg, he remarked regularly on the fleeting passage of time. And while Claude and Jules regularly vanish in the ether of their thoughts, Hugo keeps record of life’s details, albeit from his particular perspective. He now combines these traits to retell humorous stories from when he and Claude were little, most often tales of when they were naughty.
There was that time when Claude was about 12 and he was standing in the hallway outside our bedrooms and he called you a bitch and you heard it all the way down in the basement because the laundry shoot was open and you yelled up, “What…did…you…call…me?” and started stomping up all four flights of stairs and Claude just stood there frozen, unable to move and I was scared too even though I hadn’t done anything wrong and you just stomped loudly up the stairs, but not fast, while Claude stood there panicking and I stood in the doorway of my room watching him, neither of us could move and when you finally got to the top of the stairs you got right in Claude’s face and again yelled, “What did you call me?” and Claude said in this meek little voice, “A bear?” and you roared in his face like a bear and, I swear to God, I thought he peed his pants and I was so glad I wasn’t him.
When Hugo’s in trouble or avoiding work I’ve asked him to do, his trump card is to pull out his guitar and sing one lovely ballad after another. Our house has a central stairwell, which functions as an acoustic chimney. When Hugo sings and strums, music fills every room and brings levity to all the inhabitants.
Huge passion, passionate Hugo. I wanted to name him Oskar. I’m glad he’s a Hugo.
Jules means “youthful, young.” Jules is not like anyone else I have ever known and, as such, is the hardest child to describe. I only wanted two children (yes, it’s true, zero growth and all that) but when Hugo was two years old, my ex-husband campaigned for a third baby with all his potent skills of charm and subterfuge. At the time, I assumed my ex’s drive for a third child could be traced to the fact that in his own family he was the third child. Now, however, I believe he presaged, presumably subconsciously, that when I was no longer in what many mothers think of as “the baby fog,” I would escape. Which is exactly what I did when Jules was six.
However, if for nothing else, I am undyingly grateful my ex-husband crusaded for the baby who is Jules. An easy baby and ethereally beautiful toddler, he came into this life rolled in pixie dust, or so I’ve always said, and for years I was uneasy about him being more than an arm’s reach from me in public.
“Jules is not the angel you think he is,” Hugo has told me on more than one occasion.
“Yes, I am,” Jules has quickly responded at least once.
“Yes, he is,” I have told Hugo every time. Jules slinks out of chores, forgets to brush his teeth or make his bed, gets caught lying on occasion (mostly since becoming a teen)—he is human. But consider this: Claude, Hugo and I have potty mouths. There is no denying it, nor does it seem a habit we can change. We’ve tried swear jars, but Hugo only steals the money and we all continue swearing. Jules, however, never, ever swears. Like a lotus blooming in a quagmire of sewage, it’s just not his nature and he rises above it.
At school, where he is now in the seventh grade, Jules continues to interact with all the students in his class—the boys and the girls, those for whom things comes easily along with those who struggle. The one deal breaker for Jules is meanness. It has always been so. When Miss Peg was his preschool teacher, Jules’ closest friend would not stop smashing anthills on the playground. For months, Jules tried to convince his four-year-old best buddy to stop killing the little worker bugs and to watch them instead. All to no avail. Finally, Jules told the boy he would no longer play with an ant-killer. From that day on, Jules never spent time with, nor really spoke of, that child again.
Jules engages the world with the openness of an infant and the wisdom of a rinpoche. He has a patience uncommon for one so young, making him an accomplished birder, chef, and, in the past few years, big brother. I wanted to name Jules after a great Ohioan from the Shawnee people, a political leader who also possessed the gift of prophecy. Jules’ father scoffed at the idea and so instead I suggested Theo, godly, even though we are Buddhists. I lost that battle too. It is no secret that I was uncomfortable with the name Jules for many years. Jules himself had difficulty pronouncing the name until he was nearly six and people thought he was saying either “Juice” or “Jews.”
Three years ago, he took the Shawnee leader’s name as his spiritual name.
Leif’s name was pre-ordained, Hugo the conduit of the message. Twelve years old at the time and standing with his hands on his hips, he told Max and me, “Claude and Jules are just alike. They look alike, they act alike, they both have dyslexia. This baby boy is going to be like me. I am going to raise him in my own image and I am going to call him Leif!” (Don’t think we don’t remind Hugo of this whenever Leif’s behavior is less than ideal. We do. Hugo grins.)
We had waited as long as we could to tell the boys I was expecting because even though I had left their father three years earlier, the divorce continued interminably. The juxtaposition seemed less than ideal. “This is the worst thing that could happen to your children, all the literature says so!” said the therapist I had been seeing for many years, including marriage counseling with my ex-husband. I credit this therapist for helping me to see my own role in my marriage, one I was groomed for by my upbringing. Until I saw the script I was living, re-writing my life was not possible. But like many women, she too was vulnerable to my ex-husband’s charm and only recognized his narcissism after I left him and he no longer hid his deeply hostile nature.
“Leif is a wonderful name!” said Claude’s former teacher at the Waldorf school when I introduced her to our newborn son. “In Norse mythology, Lif and Lifthrasir are the two human children who survive Ragnorak, something like an Armageddon, and repopulate the world. Both names mean life!” Leif cemented our new life. With his birth, my boys became officially related to Max, the father of their brother. If ever they wondered, and what children of divorce don’t, Leif’s existence gave my boys the certainty that Max was more than a passing fancy of mine.
Once upon a time, before Leif was conceived, Max told me that while he thought he’d be a good father, the opportunity never presented itself. “Your boys are all I need,” he said and I believe we would have lived an equally full life without producing more children together. But it would not have been the same. I suspect we would have continued maintaining our two households rather than merging together in a house right out of my girlhood dreams. Which means Max would not be with us every night, dependably available for homework help and bedtime stories (he’s currently reading Inkspell to Jules while Leif is stuck on repeat readings of Moody Cow and Katie the Caboose). Max probably wouldn’t take off work to go to the high school with me to argue for Hugo to be placed in a better English class. Nor would he be there to drive the boys at all hours of the day and night to places near and far for their school and social activities. Our lives would have been parallel pieces of fabric serged together where they overlapped. With Leif, and later Lyra, our seven lives have been wafted and wefted into a textile, the detailed pattern of which we have slowly come to recognize. Without having been here before, it feels like coming home.
I doubt that the therapist who disparaged my pregnancy as damaging to my existing children was ever a mother herself. Had she been a mother, she would have congratulated me (I didn’t say I was trying to get pregnant, I said I was pregnant) and then advised me on how to prepare my boys for their new sibling. But I was a mother and I did know how to proceed with my children. For starters, I never saw that therapist again.
Girl One and Only
“How did you come up with the name Lyra?” we are asked all the time. Quite simply, I found it in a baby name book. The last few months of my pregnancy, when the summer was vexatiously hot, I would take Leif to Barnes and Noble. As I sat in the children’s department next to the Thomas the Tank Engine table, Leif played happily for an hour or more. While he did, I paged through baby name books taken from the shelves on our way back to the trains.
After pining for a daughter for nearly twenty years, it’s surprising I didn’t have a ready list of names. I had but one. Arabella is a name I have loved ever since reading Thomas Hardy’s dreadful Jude the Obscure. While the main characters, Jude and Sue, whine chapter after chapter about their unhappy lives, Jude’s coarse and lusty wife, Arabella, unapologetically takes what she wants and discards what she doesn’t. When the world is the straight, white man’s oyster, where those same men get to define the ideal woman as tubercular in aspect, fearful of sex and wracked with guilt—a brash character like Arabella is a feminist heroine. Arabella means “beautiful lion” and having been born in August, our beautiful girl is indeed a Leo.
The problem with Arabella as a first name is that in the twenty years I have been naming children, Bella has become popular to the point of common. It is today what Jennifer was when I was a girl. I like names that are both familiar yet uncommon. So instead, for several weeks in the middle of the pregnancy, we lived with Pippen Violet or Piper Violet. Until we learned of a couple nearby who had a daughter Leif’s age named Piper Violet. Really? Same first and middle name? Too weird. We started looking again.
Lyra, Lyra, Lyra (pronounced lie-rah, not leer-uh), I let the name roll in my mouth that day in the bookstore when I was seven months pregnant. It means musical as does the more popular name “Lyric.” But in that watery well of pregnant connection to my little fetus, I felt my girl’s name must have soft syllables. Lyra. It was only after texting the name to Max did I remember the heroine from Philip Pullman’s novel for children, The Golden Compass. Lyra Belacqua, a quick-witted girl raised in a college at Oxford University, who generally runs wild with the local children and sees little problem in spying on, and lying to, adults. When one of her friends is kidnapped, Lyra sets out to rescue him and the rest of the story is a fantastical tale of adventure and loss.
The entire family listened again to the story on CD and by unanimous vote decided to name our girl Lyra Arabella, though I fear Lyra will grow up believing her middle name is Jane. This is because when my children are babies, I find a short refrain, unique to each child, which I sing to them. For Lyra, I have adapted the American folk song, “L’il Liza Jane.” During blood draws and contact lens cleanings, when she’s sleepy and when she is fussy, she calms and directs her attention to my voice when she hears, I’ve got a house in Baltimore, little Lyra Jane. Fancy carpet on the floors, little Lyra Jane. Oh, my Lyra! Little Lyra Jane!
“I’ve long had a name for you,” my husband said to me as sat across a table from me drinking his second vodka martini. At first he refused to tell me what it was. We were in the emotionally gooey weeks just after I had announced the need to separate, but had not yet figured out how.
“You can’t tell me you’ve had a name for me and not tell me what it is,” I said, knowing he would. He wanted to tell me, why else would he have brought it up?
“It started when Hugo was a baby. I’d come home from work and see you with him and think, There she is, Depression Kitty.”
Hugo’s birth, which included ten pounds of baby and shoulder dystocia, would have ripped up my lady parts had I been in less capable hands than those of my midwives. Two days later I developed a uterine infection with all the gross symptoms of sepsis on the move. Powerful antibiotics were given and gratefully taken. They coursed through my blood stream and my breast milk, trashing the delicate bacteria growing in Hugo’s intestines. His first three days of life, Hugo’s eyes were swollen shut from having his head out of the womb for several minutes before his body could be delivered. By the time his eyes opened, he writhed with gut pain and remained severely colicky for the better part of his first six months.
Anyone who has lived with a colicky baby knows calling it torture is neither flip nor satiric. Sleep deprivation diminishes clear thinking, while each thought is splintered by the constant cries from the squirming baby who, if not in your arms, is never far away. Anxiety over the baby’s health is constant, as are jangled nerves. Living with a colicky baby for a short period of time can make a perfectly healthy person depressed and many medical professionals treat parents of a colicky babies accordingly. A colicky newborn has caused more than one couple I know to stop having children.
At the end of the long days with baby Hugo, I hoped for relief from his other parent. Instead, when he came home from work, he seemed angry with me. Which I told myself couldn’t be the case and for even thinking it, I ladled guilt onto my raw emotional state.
But he was. My necessary and unceasing attention to our colicky baby (along with three-year-old Claude, my other constant companion), detracted from the attention I could give the man of the house. When I needed support, I was given anger. When I needed comfort, I was told I was depressed and should consider taking something for it.
In an Instant
“I think I may be depressed,” I told Max, who had been my friend for years but my lover for only six months.
“Well, maybe,” he said, holding me in his arms on an autumn afternoon. Through the doors of the Juliette balcony that overlooked a small, forested yard, two extruded trapezoids of golden light cast themselves along the foot of his bed where we were lying. Dust motes floated gently in the illuminated spaces.
“Let’s see, you’re grieving the loss of your grandmother, you’re going through a long and bitter divorce, you’re in graduate school, you’re raising three children and you hardly have any money, so you clean houses in your so-called spare time. These are some of the most stressful things anyone can go through,” he said and I tried to respond.
“No, wait a moment, let me finish,” he said softly, kissing my forehead as I remained curled next to the length of his body, my head on his shoulder, my face relaxed in the soft flannel of his shirt. “Your kids are doing well, in spite of everything, because you keep them your priority. You’re getting As in grad school while enjoying your coursework, and you’re paying all your bills. All the while, you have been actively working through your grief and dealing as reasonably as anyone could with an unreasonable divorce process.”
I hadn’t thought of it that way.
“It seems to me you are a person under a tremendous amount of stress and you are managing it better than most people would. I am so impressed by how you handle it all.”
The therapist whose unconscionable reaction to the news of my pregnancy had once told me something useful: that no matter how long an emotional or psychological injury had lasted, no matter how deeply it had wounded, healing could happen in an instant.
Just as I reclaimed my birth name as a young woman, that afternoon with Max I rejected an unspoken and insidious appellation, worn for more than a decade like a musty woolen cloak placed over my head and shoulders. It simply was not me.
A Rose Is a Rose Is a Rose
Do names have the power to alter experience? There are some studies that conclude, yes, they do. How much? Probably not a lot, particularly if you have a somewhat typical name.
What seems more important is how we are treated. Recently, Hugo and I were listening to an NPR report on birth order. Firstborns, which Max and I both are, tend to have greater professional, financial and other successes in life than their younger siblings. The reasoning for this is that firstborns tend to receive the full force of their parents’ attentions and expectations. Subsequent children often get a watered-down version.
“You’re getting the same package as Claude, you know,” I told Hugo as we stood there in the kitchen next to the radio. “So don’t think the bar is any lower for you than it was for Claude when he was in high school. It’s not.”
“Oh, I know!” said Hugo. He went on to say that anyone who needed to motivate their kids should send them to me. Please, no. I’m busy enough with my own offspring right now. Hugo’s lifelong pushback on my pushing is far less than it was even a year ago. He’s now close enough to finishing high school that he is thinking about college and a career. And he’s mature enough to show gratitude regularly and without provocation.
“Hey, you know what, Mama?”
“I love you!”
“I love you too, Hugo. Now put me down, please.”