51 / 365 – Names

PAM TILLARY

Finn is asking me about his name again. “What’s the story of my name?” I remember we went through this in high school. And not long after he was born, when we came out here for holidays. Back then, I could say it was an old family name, although I had to remember whose name I said it was, my great-uncle or a long-ago grandfather. In honor of my maternal grandfather’s side of the family, from a proud race of Finns! It didn’t matter because Tom wasn’t going to ask anyone about it — he hates history, anything old. He doesn’t care about what people did in the past, just what they’re going to do next week, or out in their future. And he hates all this culture stuff, like all this Norwegian stuff in his extended family. “We’re all Americans, who cares?” is what he says.

Finn was my little act of revenge. Tom didn’t want to name him Finn, that’s for sure. But he wasn’t hardly around. He was one of the up-and-comers then, at his company, and he worked all the time, late at nights, on weekends. A lot of times when he got out of work at a reasonable time he went out with the guys from the office. There I was stuck at home with a colicky baby and then a very demanding toddler. She didn’t change, did she? And then I was pregnant with Finn and sick a lot of the time, Finn made me very sick. Not just for the first couple of months, but for about six months, if I remember right, which I probably don’t. That didn’t change much either, did it — Finn making me queasy with the things he does.

Sometime during those months, and they were awful, trying to keep with Christine while I barely felt like I could get out of bed, I got a letter from the boy I had dated all through high school, until we went off to college. Really, we had been best friends. I had some girlfriends in high school, but I remember a lot of time alone, until I met this boy, whose name was also Tom. That was a family joke for awhile. My older sister said, “So, when you’re deciding to date a guy, does his name have to be Tom?” But this Tom — his last name was Juusola, a Finnish name — was very different from Tom Tillary. Quieter, read a lot of books, although Tom did that too when I met him. It’s hard to remember that in his family, Tom was the one who read a lot and wanted to leave Jericho and everyone was sure he was not cut out to be a farmer. And here he owns the farm.

So I got this letter from Tom Juusola and there wasn’t really anything to it. He had gone to college at a school back East, somewhere in New England, and like me he had decided to be a teacher, and he had settled down in a little town and was teaching and had gotten married and had just had his first baby, also a girl. It was just a Hello-I-Hope-You’re-Well sort of letter, but it sent me spinning off into memories of what a friend he had been, how kind and caring he had been. All the things that my Tom wasn’t at that time. I remembered all sorts of things we had done growing up, a place by a lake outside of town we used to ride our bikes to before he could drive. Dances and disappointments. Later, going out by that same place by the lake and parking, hoping nobody would come. He was a very sweet boy. I called him “My little Finn.” And so I decided I that if this baby inside me turned out to be a boy, I was going to name him Finn. He was going to be my little Finn, someone to remember the first Tom by.

A few months later we started talking about names. Of course he was very definite about what name it should be. He has always been sure about the best way or the best thing for everything. He had a girl’s name picked out, Margaret, Maggie, which was his mother’s name, and I was thinking, Over my dead body we are going to name a daughter after your mother. I can’t remember what the boy’s name he wanted was, but I said, “No, if it’s a boy, it’s going to be named Finn after my grandfather” — or whoever I said it was. I remember him being shocked, shocked that I was so firm, although maybe I exaggerate that. I remember that I had been worrying about how I was going to insist on this, would I be able to insist on it. I was a little proud of myself for getting it out. And he was so surprised he just — I remember him walking away. When people would ask whether we had names picked out, I would say, “Well, if it’s a boy, it’s going to be Finn.” I had a girl’s name too, which I would say, and I don’t even remember it. I guess I was pretty certain he was going to be a boy.

It’s sad in a way. The name was supposed to remind me of my Finn, the sweet Tom I knew in high school. And I guess he is some of that. I don’t see that, much, but his friends, Laura, the people at the cafe, that’s how they describe him. But when I think about his name, mostly what I remember was that it was my act of defiance and betrayal against Tom. I made a living memorial to our worst moments, and I think of it all the time when I hear people say his name.

When I was young my mother told me that when I was born, and my brothers and sisters were born, people sat down and pulled a name out of the family history. Very carefully. As if you were extending the family line with this name, which in any case you were. A lot of them were names of people in the old country, people who had stayed behind but that people wanted to bring with them, in a way. Or people who had died and people wanted to keep them alive, in spirit. It was a way of carrying the past forward, who the family had been, into the future. Now people don’t even think about what a name means. When Christine and John had their baby, I think they picked Megan just because it sounded good. “Megan?” I said. “Where did you get that?” “I don’t know, Mom, we just liked how it sounds with Paulsen.” It’s like when I was growing up, you’d have a name of a lake or a valley or a river, like the Wisconsin River, and I’d say, “Where did that name come from?” Nobody knew. And they didn’t even think anything about the fact that they didn’t know. Just a pretty name someone had gotten from somewhere and attached to this place. I remember when I was in college at Madison and I took a class and they said it was an old Miami word that means “river that winds through red rocks,” meaning the Dells, I guess. I was shocked. A Miami word? I didn’t know there were Indians called the Miami. And if I had, I would have thought they were from Florida. And here they had lived here and had named our state and we were walking around this place, calling it by their name, not even knowing why. It felt like a Twilight Zone moment. I imagined people showing up by accident in a place and the houses and farms were all empty, and they just moved themselves in as if nothing unusual had happened and took on the names the people before had left, the Smiths and Thompsons or whoever, even though they didn’t know them, weren’t anything like them, anybody would have seen that if they had known. They would just go about their business as if everything was normal and they were home, even though they were in a place they were never meant to be. People thought I was a big deal out of nothing but I suddenly felt as if I had spent my life walking among ghosts, like all the places I knew, from all their names, were ghosts from another time.

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