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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