How long should a Jew be dead before you name your child after him? My mother thumbs through The Big Book of Baby Names, recently dusted. Hunting for free supplies, I found the book boxed up, in the back-most room of my parent’s dim-lit basement. My mother and I are seated now on the velvet couches in the living room, by the gas fireplace, powered off. This is the room for conversations, where the wheres and whats were decided (where I’d go to college, what I’d do with my life). I imagine her here when we talk on the phone, now that my life is my own. My husband Robert is with my father in his study, noses to the computer, I imagine, researching something. They have allowed my mother and me this one-on-one because, they suspect, we need it. I know my mother is happy for this small reprieve, a chance to reenter my life, which has been, it must seem to her, one long list of options.
“You are nauseous today.”
She flips to the R section. I run my fingers against the grain of the velvet, turning it dark. It’s been three months since her brother Rick’s funeral week – the formal service and the burial, and the oddly festive days of Shiva. It was snowing in Michigan then, and Aunt Sara, always first to clear your plate, hadn’t washed the kitchen table all week. A rectangular glass table – I couldn’t tell if the smudges were on the top or the underside. Bubbe, most accustomed to loss and least afraid to cry, taught us all how to grieve: loudly and with gusto, never all at once but rather on and off like a faucet. She cursed the spread of donuts, the fruit skewers, the globs of whitefish salad and the bagels, and then she ate, heartily, as if she had, just then, escaped narrowly from starvation.
“How long do we wait,” I ask my mother, “before using the name? Has it been long enough?”
“We don’t wait,” she says. “There’s no waiting.” My mother told me to book a flight the day before Rick died. Act now, she said. Jews don’t wait to bury the dead.
Uncle Rick was young, but at least he went quickly. At least his early mornings at the gym, his Seinfeld jokes, the way he cleaned the kitchen table, thoroughly, methodically, leaving neither crumb nor streak, all endured until the very last week. His children made it home from college just in time to say goodbye. He waited for them, at least.
My mother reads: “Richard, From the Germanic ‘ric’ meaning power, and ‘hard’ meaning strong.”
“Not Richard,” I say.
She narrows her eyes toward the page. Have I upset her? Usually so quick to prescribe the whos and hows of my life (how to wear my hair, who not to marry,) now she is quiet, un-provoking, as if she has, in the light of my new condition, realized my fragility, or perhaps her own.
“I mean, take the R, maybe. The R is okay.”
She uncaps her pen, a dark blue fountain engraved with her name and post-nominal letters, and draws a block-letter R on her stationary pad, also engraved, bordered in gold.
“Or maybe the M from his middle name,” I say.
She nods, licks a finger, and flips to the M section.
In spite of myself, I am trying to lift the skin around her eyes. I know my mother’s face is systematically aging, a little bit each day, so incremental that I should only notice new lines after long absences, but some days, in certain lights, everything sags, deepens, darkens, and that is when I love her most and long to be away from her.
I look for something to mock, a joke I can tell. There is a dearth of humor in the current scene and I am not the one to fix it. What would Rick say? The men are the humorists in this family. Even then, Uncle Bern, before he let everyone see him cry, stood beside the tower of bagels and joked: There are people here who Rick wouldn’t have let in his house. And later, once the colleagues and associates had exited, my brother, always anxious for levity, spiked up the front of his hair, opened his arms and, slack-mouthed, began to thrust his hips forward and back. A Kramer-seizure. Even Aunt Sara laughed.
“Mark,” she reads, “of Latin origin, meaning ‘dedicated to Mars,’ the Roman God of war.”
Not Mark, I think. But is that an upturned arrow in the corner of her mouth? Who knew, naming a child is an exercise in resurrection. My mother, not me, is the one who brings things back. Old sweaters from the 70’s, leftovers from the back of the fridge, pictures of Rick from high school.
Last month, she asked me to make a book, one of those digital photobooks, a commemoration, she said, you’re the designer after all. She’d searched and organized for weeks. I scanned and edited the photos, laid them out in Illustrator. There was Rick with a ‘fro, arm around my mother at Fenway Park, there in a velour tux at his Bar Mitzvah, there a little boy, shirtless on his brother’s shoulders. Little Rick looked just like his own son.
Richard Mark Durch, 1960-2011, I typed in French Script into the text box on the last page. We printed 20 copies. Sara will like it, my mother said. And Bubbe might cry, say she doesn’t want one, but she’ll love it – she’ll set it on her counter next to her phone with the giant buttons and that framed picture of Grandpa Dave in a red tracksuit. Bubbe’s house is full of photos, old polaroids, holiday greeting cards, and pixelated print-outs taped to the fridge. Only the dead make it into frames.
“War,” I repeat, looking for excuses. “I’m not sure I want war in there, in the name, I mean, but the M, the M is good.” I take the pen from her hand, gently, so as not to appear possessive, which, under normal circumstances, is a quality I strive to retain in all our interactions. I turn the stationary pad towards myself, flip to a new sheet. M, I write in cursive.
The blank lined pages, headed one by M and the other by R, sit between us on the couch. The R is solid, thick-lined and heavy, the M loopy, insubstantial. My mother is unhappy, and it is my fault, of course. My mother’s happiness is forever on my to-do list; I can’t ever seem to cross it off.
I brandish my olive leaf. D, I write on a new sheet. “For David,” I say.
If there is any name that could please her it must be this one, but my mother does not smile. She nods and flips to the D section. I am bemused. She loves this name, so she tells me whenever Davids are born – and there are always Davids being born – not just for her father, but because it sounds regal. How adorable. A little king.
Here in this room is my mother’s Yartzeit candle for Grandpa Dave. Like many of our Jewish rituals, it is designed for efficiency; it is not a real candle but a nightlight she pushes into the socket on the anniversary of her father’s death – the light should ‘burn’ for a day, but my mother tends to leave it glowing for a week, or more. On Friday, she’ll make me go to temple with her so we can stand and say his name during the memorial prayer, an annual custom. Why do we go? I always used to ask her. As a child, I understood little of prayer, but I always liked the walls of the synagogue – stained-glass designs, squares and rectangles that cast the room in warm colors. Do you believe? I’d ask next. Who can believe? was her answer. My mother is not a believer but she is forever seeking tradition – nightlights, photo albums, ways to be Jewish without praising God.
Rick was buried next to Grandpa Dave, in Greenwood Cemetery, between Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham. Look, my mother showed me the stone while we waited for the town cars to empty of sad freezing people. We didn’t want to sit and contemplate that wide, square hole, soon to be filled, a porthole to the underworld. We preferred the plugged up squares and their place-cards. Grandpa Dave’s stone was black and flush with the ground. David Blumenwald, it said, etched in grey. His original name. My mother underlined Blumenwald with the toe of her boot, the name she missed, the name she’d tried to resurrect (as her middle name – a feeble attempt). It means “Forest of Flowers,” she told me once, proud. Durch – the name her father found for them, their happenstance name, the name for the new identities that headed their immigration papers and bought them a boat trip to the New World – it means “door.” Can you imagine, she’d explained, losing a forest for a panel of wood? But that name was your door, I’d said, testing my cleverness.
The snow fell then as if on cue. Bubbe paced around the cemetery plots like something feral. Aunt Sara was stoic stepping out of the town car in her black boots, her black coat, her black fur hat, her eyes rimmed in red. Her eyes are always red in my memory, and closing with her contact lenses still in, Rick forever nudging: Sare, don’t fall asleep yet, take out your lenses.
My mother bent and cleared the snow from my grandfather’s stone. She almost smiled. It’s a nice stone, she said. I hope Rick’s stone will be nice, like this one. My mother is so comforted by containers, straight lines and solid shapes. I remember my grandfather’s impossibly thick-lensed glasses – bad eyes from two years hiding in the woods – and the way he smiled at me, like I was everything he’d ever asked for. The men began to lower the casket then. They held their breaths with the weight, my brother, my father, Uncle Bern, and a man I didn’t know, while Robert, trying to say as little as possible lest he betray our private schemes, concerned himself primarily with keeping Bubbe warm. Every time she refused his coat she asked him when we were having a baby, and when he did not answer she cried for her own. My mother turned from her father’s stone and pointed her red nose toward the pile of dirt, primed for placement. Don’t let me be buried in the cold, she whispered.
She reads: “David. Of Hebrew origin, meaning ‘beloved.’”
“It’s an option,” I say. I hand her the pen. “Write it down,” I offer.
“If you like it,” she shrugs, but she doesn’t take the pen. I write it myself. David, in neat block letters. I turn the pad towards her, to make sure she sees.
“May I suggest girls now?” my mother asks. Robert and I have decided to keep the sex a surprise. We like the idea of relinquishing control, of delaying the kind of knowledge that dictates fate. It’s romantic, not knowing. It prevents preparation, which is, I think, the antithesis of romance. I realize that perhaps my decision was made in service of scenes like this one. I thought denying my mother the certainty she usually requires would lighten the weight of her insistence, but now, seeing her face as it is, and hearing her voice rise at the end of her question (a question, how rare for my mother to ask me a question), I regret such ambiguity. The floor begins to spin slightly, like water draining from a tub.
“Go ahead,” I say.
She hands me the book and points to a name. She takes the pen, turns the R sheet and writes. Rose.
I read: “A girl’s name of Latin origin, named for the popular flower.”
“Do you like it?” Another question.
Here are those flowers, again, from the forest my mother left behind. I’ve always imagined that their German home, where my mother was born, where they lived in the years after the war, was magical and lush, as if roses sprang up in the countryside instantly upon liberation. But Grandpa Dave’s hiding forest, the one in Poland where he wore out his eyes and the soles of his shoes – in my mind, that forest is dark and square and foliage free, but, of course, I have never seen it.
What happens to the past if there are no photographs? Is it strange that my unborn child makes me think of that one, black and white, of my mother bathing in a metal bucket? The relic is here in this room, in the family album 1947-1951, between Chagall’s Greatest Works and a small, bound Torah, unread.
We used to look at the album together; I: delighted; my mother: unreadable. How she felt about a past that seemed to me like an old-time movie, I did not know, nor think to ask. There was Grandpa Dave, riding the D.P. camp’s only bicycle. There was Bubbe, surrounded by women in dresses with babies. There was my mother, naked, tummy-down on a blanket in the dried-up grass. And there she was in the new world, eyes glazed, boarding a train. I was so seasick, she would tell me, I was dizzy for weeks. The image of my mother as a small child always filled me with impossible longing. I wanted to know her, to be her friend.
My mother was named for each of her parents’ mothers. Sheindel Genendel Blumenwald. When she first told me, when I was old enough to think of her as having a name at all, I laughed. Those names sounded so foreign to my ear, like they came from a Bavarian fairytale. Her next name was even worse, she said, rolling her eyes. Bertha Durch. The name on her new papers, her ticket to Detroit by way of Ellis Island. I laughed harder, unsure what, exactly, was so funny.
Bertha fell away. Sheindel became Selma, and then Selma became Sally once they made it to the suburbs. Durch stuck. The only name for her brothers (American-born), the name for a self-made business, for prosperity. Soon my mother had a new name to don, my father’s, and her own family to name, so she dropped Durch, but resurrected Blumenwald. As a child, it seemed to me that my mother had rid herself so systematically of her past (a Ph.D., a home across the country) and then turned around and reached out for it again, but only the beautiful parts.
When we last went to temple, my mother and I, it was just the two of us, two months ago, here in Boston. We were still technically in mourning. I turned to the last page of the service printout. I scanned the memorials. There was no Richard Durch listed. Richard Blumenwald, it said instead. At the end of the service, the mourners stood. The Rabbi scanned the congregation – each standing person recited a name, some loudly with resolve, others so softly I could hardly hear. The rabbi’s eyes found my mother’s. Ricky, my baby brother, she said. Her voice was thinner than the piece of paper in my hands. That’s not his name, I told her, pointing to Blumenwald, as if she didn’t know. She looked guilty, insecure, a rare look for her, I almost didn’t recognize it. I don’t know why I gave the temple that name, she said later. But she knew why. It was a gesture of ownership, as if to say “this loss is mine.” If Aunt Sara ever saw, if she had been there. That was never his name.
But I suppose I understand. So many losses have not been hers and yet she has felt them anyway; degrading losses, inherited but unnamed. For once, to name her loss, to dignify it.
“Rose is nice,” I say, but my voice does not sound like my own.
“Who was Rick named for?” I ask, eyeing the R sheet, Rose now printed neatly on the second line.
“The first sister.”
“The first to…”
I turn the pages of The Big Book of Baby Names, tentatively. I find it, but I don’t read it aloud.
I search her eyes for permission.
“Risha,” she says.
I read, “Risha, of Old Greek origin, derived from the word meaning ‘rainbow.’”
Recently my mother asked me to find all their names at the Yad Vashem memorial. There’s a list, and if they aren’t there, figure out how to enter them. The four girls, Masha, Risha, Leah, Tsiviyah and the mother Sheindel, too. Place of birth: Warsaw. There was also the father and the grandmother, but start with the four girls, she said. Last name Skörka. With two dots over the O, make sure. My mother, she is always giving me projects.
I logged onto the site, but before I could drag my mouse across the Names Database, I was entranced by the slideshow on the home screen, those piles of square suitcases, scribbled writing on a cement wall, and pairs and pairs of sad, dark eyes. Photos of dead people always look familiar to me. Underneath the slides, a quote: Isaiah 56:5. I looked up the full verse. To them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial and a name, better than sons and daughters…
I found the Names Database under Most Requested. Better than sons and daughters, I thought. More pictures: a girl with braids, a toddler in suspenders, a woman with narrowed eyebrows, leaning on her elbow. I was thinking then about frames, the shape of loss and remembrance. The walls of Warsaw, the ones Bubbe slipped through, the boxcars that threatened to take her away, the sides of Grandpa Dave’s forest, sunlit, those stone slabs in the ground, all the squares of my uncle’s photobook, and there, the search box, asking for a name.
Could not find any results… even with those two dots over the O.
We have very few options listed on our notepad paper, and Robert will be disappointed. Silence surrounds us, and with the dam of civilized conversation torn, my nausea folds over like waves. Compulsion compels me; I flip through pages. Leah, I find. Of Hebrew origin, meaning “delicate, weary.” I do not read aloud. More flipping. Masha. Variant of Mary, origin Latin, meaning “star of the sea.” To the T’s. Trevor, Tristan, Troy…Tyanna, Tyler, Tyson. No Tsiviyah. To the S’s. Shea, Shealynn, Sheila, …Shelby, Shelly, Shelton. No Sheindel. I want to throw the book across the room – what a provincial piece of publishing, such Anglicized names. I am incensed on behalf of my ancestors, denied entry into our system of American meaning. My rage feels borrowed but my compulsion is real, it churns with my nausea. The room sways, and my head fills with all the unassembled letters of these unlisted names. I don’t know what happens to people when they are un-remembered. I can’t say what happens to grief when it is un-plugged-up. What if we have no squares to stop-up our pain, no photos, or books, or slabs of stone? Once Bubbe told me, the ghetto had no gravestones.
“Are you going to be sick?” my mother asks. I wish she would stop asking me questions. I wish, now, suddenly and desperately, that she would tell me what to do, who to be and how, and what to name my child.
“We don’t have enough options yet,” I say.
“We can consider whatever you want.” Why is she being so accommodating? Doesn’t she know that I need her to stay exactly the same – insistent and demanding – now that everything is changing?
“But don’t we want something…meaningful?”
“I want whatever you want. You’re always telling me to be more flexible.”
“I thought you wanted something familial.” I say. “You suggested Rose….”
“What does a rose have to do with anything?” Is she feigning ignorance? For as well as I think I know her, she still surprises me, and, as it turns out, I only really know my mother through myself. How accurate is the aim of my projection? She takes the book from my hands, eyeing me for permission. Such a calculated show of complicity, I recognize it as my own. “A name is just a name,” she says. “Here….” She opens the book to a random page, closes her eyes, and points. “Look,” she says, “Brianna, Britney….” She does it again, “Henrietta, Henry….”
“Stop!” I yell. I grab the book from her hands, wildly, like a child, and fold it under my breast, arms crossed. Her show is too much. I am uncomfortable with random, and I thought she was too.
“Amy.” She says my name like the end of a sentence, not scolding, but ceasing dispute, and when I hear it, I remember, as a child, asking her where it came from. It means love, she’d said, it’s French. French! I imagined my name then with the short A, feeling singular, as if she’d given me the key to a secret garden, exotic and all my own.
I uncross my arms and hand her the book. She is laughing, and the tension drains. My nausea subsides, placated by my petulance. My mother stacks the three sheets of paper on the notepad and places them on the coffee table. She smoothes the couch fabric between us back to the light side. She moves closer to me, takes my head in her hands and pulls my cheek toward her chest. Of course, I start to cry, not for all the dead people we’ve named or for those we haven’t, as I am used to that by now, but for my mother’s affection, which, amidst even her most inscrutable moods, always knows where to find me.
I remember when I first told her the news. How her voice rose and fell through the phone line. “Happy,” she said, the rest of the line inaudible. And Bubbe with her unintelligible hysteria – it overwhelmed me. Always seeking the gravest of shapes, old photos and stones and all the weights on my mother’s chest, now I have to make room for joy, that least symmetrical of promises.