Bearing Someone Else’s Name

“The name is the thing, and the true name is the true thing. To speak the name is to control the thing.” — Ursula K. Le Guin, The Rule of Names

To knowing someone’s true name is to have power over them. It’s an old concept that most link to Le Guin’s writing and the world she created for the Earthsea books, but it’s far older than that. In Bulgaria, as in most Eastern Orthodox countries, names are celebrated for their power over their holder. Name Days are common enough and heavily populate the Bulgarian calendar to celebrate bearers named after saints, flowers, trees and virtues.

On your Name Day, you give out bonbons to score points with the universe and receiving the congratulations and well-wishes of others. Depending on how intimate you are with a person, wishes can range from a simple Happy Name Day to lengthy recitals of love and good things your name should bring in your life. It’s fun and very casual prompt to remind our loved ones we care about them.

Today, I have Name Day. February 10th belongs to Saint Charalambos (Haralambi is the Bulgarian derivative), a Greek saint who is celebrated as the patron saint of beekeepers and also the man who imprisoned the plague. It’s always been a day to remember that my name has an interesting history, even if I’m not religious.

It’s also a reminder that my naming is an act of deep meaning. You see, I’m named after my grandfather and every year we’d congratulate ourselves on carrying this rare name and wish each other another year of health and happiness. He’s the only person who’s lived with this name and it made me feel less alone when children made fun of it and everyone misspelled it to the point I stopped introducing myself by my full name to spare myself the trouble. This year I don’t get to do that as my grandfather died last October and it’s been a long, sobering successions of firsts.

I don’t get to wish him another happy year, but I can remember him and reminisce about how his life informed mine. He and my grandmother are the ones who raised me so when it comes fathers, this is the man I think about even though I never called him that. Maybe I should have but some things we figure out too late.

It got me thinking. What’s in a name? Does the name of the person you’re named after carry a trait over to you? Is it a hue hidden in the self-portrait you spend your life composing; always invisible when you work, but suddenly so obvious when you take a step back?

Memories is what I have to seek my questions, but it’s clear we were similar in ways that are slowly coming into focus. The patience with which he’d listen to someone else talk and talk and the way he’d stay silent and leave people to imprint whatever image they had of him over who he was as a person.

Death is a strange thing. It comes and bereaves you, but it also makes someone complete and finished. They stop being a collection of small rituals, inside jokes and involuntarily rehearsed motions and routines. Gone is the complacent safety that you’ll get to see a person tomorrow and again the day after, and yet again for years ahead, simply because this is what’s happened. Something fuller emerges and you see far more than before, because only now are you fully present and engaged and immersed. But now it’s a little too late to tell and you fiercely hope they knew their importance in your life.

If something from my grandfather has passed onto me through his name, I wish it stays in me unchanged. That way I won’t feel like the only one carrying my name.

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