A few years ago I was working for a telecommunications company as secretary to the Operations Manager. Part of my role was to organise all the paper work, computer logins and orientation for any new employee that joined the department. In this particular instance I was to arrange everything for a new customer service representative called Clare.
Monday arrived and the lovely Clare was sitting waiting in the foyer.
My phone rang, it was reception.
“The new lady is here.”
I walked downstairs and towards Clare, my hand outstretched ready to shake hers.
“Hi, Clare, I’m Sarah. I’ll be helping you to settle in today and you will meet with John later.”
“Anais,” Clare said.
“I’m sorry?” I said, not sure what she meant.
“My name is Anais.”
I looked at my paper work. Her ID badge clearly said “Clare”. I looked at her, confused. Had they employed someone else without telling me?
“I changed it, my name. By deed poll.”
I had no idea what to say.
“My parents chose my name, and I haven’t spoken to them in 10 years. I never really liked the name they chose. This job is a new start for me, so I thought ‘why not completely reinvent myself?’ and so I changed my name. I named myself Anais, after Anais Nin.”
She had also changed her surname to some equally exotic name – all traces of her old life erased. Well, on paper at least. I suspect a lot of what caused her to change her name would live with her for many years to come.
I nodded, admittedly dumbfounded, and took her upstairs. I listened to her repeat the story at least 10 times that day to various people who were expecting “Clare”.
I was named after my great-grandmother. My mother didn’t know her grandmother. She had died young, aged just 56, the year my mother was born, but a scandal surrounded her.
The story goes that she was a domestic servant in a manor house, almost certainly not as grand as Downton Abbey, but a manor house none the less. The family legend says that my grandmother came about as a result of a tryst between Sarah and the lord of the manor. So strong was this rumour, and the resulting shame she felt because of it, that my grandmother had all evidence of her birth cremated with her when she died.
There are no details of Sarah’s mother, only her father, Charles.
My mom grew up listening to stories about Sarah:
Sarah had to return to work. She had no alternative. It is not clear if she returned to the original manor house. My grandmother, as a consequence, was brought up in a convent, by nuns, until the age of 17. Up until the age of 5, she had been looked after her aunt and uncle, who by all accounts had not cared for her that well. My grandmother loved the convent, but saw Sarah very little.
My grandmother unsurprisingly became such a devout catholic that she was on course to become a nun herself when she met my grandfather. Sadly, the shame surrounding her birth never ever left her.
But my mother fell in love with Sarah.
There was never any question that I was going to be named after her.
I think my mom had this idea that Sarah had been manipulated, that the power the lord of the manor had over her had resulted in my grandmother, that Sarah would have been poor, alone and without means. It wasn’t an uncommon story of the time.
Somehow an injustice had taken place. And somehow Sarah’s memory was going to live on in me.
For the longest time I did not like my name. It was so plain. I couldn’t shorten it. I never got a nickname and god, I so wanted a nickname – a cool one like Tif or Kat or Shell. There was no term of endearment for me. I lamented how ordinary Sarah was. And when I met Clare-now-Anais I so desperately wanted an exotic name too.
Yet, as I got older, became more aware, I realised that Sarah, the person, ran in my veins. And I knew that I was her immortality. I have no idea what she was like as a person, but I do know she was a survivor. I know that she gave her daughter up to nuns who would care for her at a time when orphanages would have been the easy option. I know that Sarah would have had to pay for that care.
I know that through that care my grandmother turned into a woman who, despite years of struggles and ill health, was kind and good and was adored by her family. I know she gave birth to my mother who likewise was adored.
I know that my mother felt indignant at the shame the catholic church imposed on my grandmother, a shame that never left her, a shame that would reverberate for 60 years until my grandmother’s death, despite the catholic church excommunicating her because my grandfather left her for another woman.
And I know my mother instilled in me an incredibly strong sense of social justice, to question those in power constantly, to keep an eye out for the marginalised and disempowered, especially women.
I know that starting with Sarah a long line of strong women began, women who don’t give up, who persevere and who survive.
I know that as I stand here today, Sarah is a name of which I am very proud. It carries with it a life line, a heritage that, rather than shame, fills me with pride. It is the name that my mom uttered as she lay dying, calling out to my grandmother whom she could seen in her last few days. It is a name that has come to mean so much for over 120 years.
What is in a name? A new life, perhaps, like Clare? Or perhaps a vindicated link to an old one. What do you think?
How about you, do you like your name? Were you named after someone? Have you changed it?
Until next time,