One Thread

“Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides.” -Lao Tzu

Today is the anniversary of Vincent van Gogh’s birth. Vincent van Gogh was born on March 30, 1852. He died on March 30, 1852.

Vincent van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853. He died on July 29, 1890.

Vincent van Gogh was the stillborn son of Theodorus van Gogh and Anna Cornelia Carbentus. And exactly one year later, they had another son, also named Vincent van Gogh, who became a famous painter. This stood out to me because it sounds familiar.

When I read my family history, I see these names listed among the children born to Solomon and Maria Derksen:

Anna, born February 11, 1897, died October 4, 1897

Anna, born 1897, died 1902

In the next generation, I see these children born to Heinrich and Maria (Derksen) Block:

Anna, born March 19, 1914, died March 29, 1915

Anna, born August 5, 1917, died October 18, 1917

Anna, born June 29, 1919

The third Anna born to Heinrich and Maria was my maternal grandmother, Annie (Block) Derksen. She died June 17, 2005. (She changed her name from Anna to Annie when she became a U.S. citizen.)

When I was young, seeing the names of children being given to later children always seemed a curious thing. A child deserves her own name. And what a burden, to carry the name of your older dead sibling throughout your life! To be honest, I still think it’s a curious thing, and I don’t fully understand why reusing names was such a common thing during that time. It seems odd to me to give a living child the name of a dead child. In so many ways, it feels like the name should be sacred.

Long before we started trying to grow our family, I chose first names and middle names for my wished-for children. At one point, I had names for at least 10 children, all of which began with the letter J (perhaps because Grandma Annie gave all of her 14 children R names!) Then I had a list of names that were all from the Bible. Then I had a list of names that all had two middle names (perhaps because Grandma Annie gave all of her 14 children two middle names, which she never could explain why, although I think might have been compensating for not having a middle name at all herself.) I needed long lists of names because I wanted a lot of children. (I was more reasonable than my grandparents. I only wanted 12, not 14.)

At some point, friends and family members started having children, and sometimes they would use a name that was “mine,” as if I had a claim on it. After a few years of trying to have children with no success, I think the frustration over the unjustness of another person besides me being pregnant became intertwined with the name issue, so perhaps it looked more like indignation than annoyance.

(Let me note that I think there certainly have been instances where people purposely “steal” names from others, and I think that is rude. If you happen to have been the victim of that, I’m sorry. No one else knew what names I had chosen, so there was never anything intentional.)

And at another point, I quit thinking about names. Because pregnancy and childbirth were not going to be part of my history. My mothering experience to my one child began with a 9 year old, who already had a name. We modified his legal name slightly at his adoption, but I didn’t want to change his name because it was his. It was the name his first parents gave him. It was the name he had known for all the years of life he lived before I became part of it. I didn’t want to take either one of those things from him. It felt like something sacred.

To be completely transparent, I still have a list of names “just in case.” It’s been adjusted on numerous occasions as I’ve grown and changed on this journey. And it’s been changed as other people have used more of “my” names throughout the years. And no, we are not trying, but I’ve heard enough stories that begin “My cousin/sister/aunt/neighbor, had gone through years of infertility…” to not have it completely erased from the realm of possibilities yet.

And if I were ever to have the privilege of naming a girl, part of her name will include Ann or some variation of Ann.

(Yes, I know what it will be. No, I’m not going to tell you. It’s one of the few aspects of trying to grow our family that I’m not yet willing to let go.)

Ann was the middle name of my paternal grandmother. Annie (Anna) was the first name of my maternal grandmother.

I, myself, was named after my great-grandmothers. One was Maria. One was Marie. One was Mary. One was Consuela. Mary Louise was the only great-grandmother still living when I was born, so I am Mary Louise.

I was named after both the dead and the living. I want to name a child after the dead. Because I think that feels sacred.

Is there a difference because the names are separated by decades? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Perhaps there’s less of a separation between life and death than we often imagine. And perhaps Solomon and Maria and Heinrich and Maria knew that better than we do today.

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Writing for a Writing Teacher

A professor can never better distinguish himself in his work than by encouraging a clever pupil, for the true discoverers are among them, as comets amongst the stars.

-From the biography of Linnaeus by Benjamin Daydon Jones, ch. 9  

For my high school graduation, my parents gave me Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. I was simultaneously delighted and disappointed. You see, I loved this book and had requested it, so I was happy to receive it. But I was disappointed, because while it was the Bartlett’s that I had come to love as a rich anthology of literary wisdom over thousands of years, it was not the same edition as the one I had been using for the last four years in Ms. Rita Dean’s classroom. (She was Ms. Tolch at the time.) It didn’t look the same. It didn’t feel the same. It wasn’t quite the same.

My first significant experience with Mrs. Dean was when she was the coach for speech contest when I was in 7th or 8th grade. I was in the Honors English program in high school, and we would have one semester of literature with whichever teacher taught that grade’s English class and one semester of writing with Mrs. Dean, so I had her one semester each year for four years. She was the drama director, so I spent time with her during every play and musical season. She served as the sponsor for Students Against Alcohol and Drugs. She began the Sweetheart Banquet for seniors when I was in high school, and I worked with her planning that. I spent more time with her than with any other high school teacher except maybe the music directors. She was by far my favorite teacher. Spending many hours together with her in the classroom and the stage contributed to that designation, but it was more than that.

More than 20 years after my high school experience, if you asked me to name major influences in my life, her name would be one of the first I mentioned. Ms. Dean was always elegant and graceful. She was someone I could admire and look up to. She was someone I wanted to imitate. She was always poised and well-mannered. She always greeted the class with a smile. She wrote lots of notes on our papers as she graded them. She marked errors and passages that could use some improvement with tips for the next assignment. She also marked things that she liked and pointed out strengths so we knew what we were doing well.

She encouraged me to write. She would tell me about writing contests and urge me to send in a submission, which she would review and critique before I sent it in. The Sweetheart Banquet was her idea, and she asked for volunteers to help plan it. There were three or four other students along with me that were part of that group. She asked us for our ideas. She listened to our ideas. She used our ideas. Her goal was to organize a special event for the local senior citizens, and as long as our ideas were feasible, she let us take the lead. As high school students, we weren’t given very many opportunities to carry out our own ideas for a school function, and that is still one of my favorite high school experiences.

In my teen years, when I felt awkward and clumsy and out of place and insecure and a little lost, she encouraged me. She listened to me. She challenged me. She comforted me. She guided me. She believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, and she helped develop my strengths when I did. I knew I admired her then, but in the last few years, I’ve realized how much I needed her then. And she was exactly the person I needed her to be to provide a steady, calming influence to my adolescent turmoil.

Seeing her unexpectedly at a restaurant or store after I moved away always made my day. We would be delayed to wherever we were supposed to go next because we would spend time catching up, as she asked about my life and my family. She would always ask if I was still writing. And she would give me a warm, slightly-scolding smile when I said that I was not. As I’ve been writing more in the last couple years, I have thought on more than one occasion that I would love to call her up and talk to her about it. Maybe she would mark up my essays the way she did more than 20 years ago.

I never called her.

And now I can’t.

I learned today that she died in a car accident earlier this week.

Tonight, I sit at my computer with my copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations sitting on the desk. It’s not Mrs. Dean’s. It’s mine. I’ve used it hundreds of times over the years, and I still enjoy finding quotes in it even when it is faster and yields more results to use the internet. I wonder how much my love for this book is because of the association with my time with Mrs. Dean.  How much is because of the memories I have of sitting in her classroom or rehearsing lines or hanging up paper heart decorations? How much is because of who she was as a teacher and a mentor? How much is because of the gift she gave to me when she believed in me?

I don’t know of any more fitting tribute for her than to write, so in my tears, tonight I will write. And I will remember her every time I open Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. And every time I write.