Saturday, October 25, 2008

What's in a name

What’s in a Name

I was never too fond of my name. Kara itself wasn’t bad. Unique enough so that I only knew three other people with the same name and never had any of them in my classes. Simple to spell and in the middle of the alphabet.

It’s the Helen middle name I objected to. It didn’t get used very often, but when it did it was never in a positive way. Usually when I was in trouble. Mostly when I, I hate to admit this, would pout after losing a game. Still confused? I’ll explain.

Helen was my grandmother’s middle name, the one she was known by. If your first name were Bertha, you’d choose Helen, too. Grandma loved to play games: board, card, or just about any other type you can think of. She also hated to lose. I mean really hated it. I’m talking family-members-purposely-losing-to-avoid-a-scene hated it. It seems I inherited that trait so when I pulled out my Grandma-pout, family members would pull out the dreaded middle name.

For most of my life, I was able to avoid Helen. It was just an H. on forms and the only person who ever called me by it was an aunt who delighted in calling me by my full – first, middle, maiden, and married – name. That all changed this past August.

My grandmother died the last week in August. She’d been sick for many years but the death itself was sudden. I live over three hundred miles from where she did. We were close when I was growing up and she was only a short ride (or long walk) away. I hadn’t seen her in over a year.

It wasn’t just the physical distance that pushed us apart. The age and generational gap did most of the work. She’d been a farmer’s wife all her life. She cooked my grandfather’s meals and had them ready at a certain time. She’d raised five children and kept a very tidy house. I moved to a big city and started working, married a man who does all the cooking, my apartment is rarely tidy, and the thought of one child frightens me right now. I never understood her fascination with watching golf on television and she never could understand my mystery-and-crime obsessions.

While she was alive, I assumed I understood the woman I was named after. She was a wife, a cook, a mother, a grandmother, a game player, and an avid fisher. I never tried to dig any deeper than that. When she died, I naively thought that the majority of mourners would be family members and a few close friends.

I was wrong.

I was stunned to see a roomful of flowers and plants at the funeral home. They lined walls and we even found a few hidden behind tables. They were from business the family farm worked with, friends she’d made over the years, and people associated with her children and grandchildren. I was even more shocked by the number of people who stopped by the house or sent cards.

My grandmother’s funeral was standing room only. I had no idea that my grandmother had touched that many lives. After the service and at the viewing, people would come up to me to share an anecdote and tell me how wonderful my grandmother was. Once I got home and back into the swing of every day life, I started thinking about her.

How amazing must she have been to not only raise five well-adjusted, successful children, keep her family dressed and fed, and still maintain such lasting, deep friendships? Even in her later years, she took care of my grandfather and spent time with her family but she had time to make new friends though Bible study. Women my grandmother had known since before I was born were there to mourn her passing. What kind of heart does it take to build those kinds of ties?

The floral arrangements sent by people who’d never met my grandmother make sense now because they have, indirectly, met her. In one way or another she helped shape the lives of her kids and the grandkids she adored. Part of who I am today is thanks to her. I only wish it was a bigger part.

I’m fonder of my name these days. I’m the only grandchild to bear it. It doesn’t feel like a curse but more like something I need to live up to. I would like to be more like my grandmother. Not the children-raising, meal-cooking one because I plan on adopting and the fire department doesn’t like it when I cook, but the one who held on to friendships for decades, touched lives, and left a legacy of family and friends. I want standing room only.

Kara Helen Thorpe

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