Patrick Ryan, storyteller, came to our school today to do workshops and tell stories. He was truly inspiring and got the students actively engaged in several storytelling activities that were very valuable. He was so good, in fact, that we teachers got sucked into the creative energy he instigated in the room as well. One of the activities he asked us to do was to think of how we got our names. Did our names mean anything? Was there a story around our name? I hadn’t thought about this in a long time and the memory probably would have remained buried had he not shaken the sawdust between my ears.
My mother’s father was hit by an oncoming train when she and her twin were 5 and her older sister was 10. Joseph F, a revered and humble man in the community, became a kind of surrogate father, really a grandfather, for all three girls. In fact, they called him Papa and his wife Bawba. He was a shoemaker and repaired all of their shoes, walking the distance between his home and my mother’s to deliver his work. He was very compassionate around the plight of my grandmother and made himself as available as possible, offering advice to my mother and her sisters, spending time talking with my grandmother, fixing what he could around the house. He had been friends to the family before my grandfather died, but he and his wife pledged themselves to Fanny and her young children after the tragic accident. He was full of life, never tired or tiring. When he was 74, he personally replaced the roof on his house. He vowed that he wouldn’t die until all “his girls” were married. My mother was the last of her sisters to be married and after she and my father left on their honeymoon (a trip to Chicago), Papa had a heart attack and died on the dance floor at the wedding party which was still going on. Mom and Dad didn’t learn of his death until after their return to Toledo.
In my culture, a child is named after someone using the first letter of their name. And so I was named after Joseph F, the man who did a lot for others and gave generously of his spirit and time, who may have had very few material goods, but definitely had a whole lot of heart, and who made sure that my mother, her sisters, and my grandmother did not lack for what was important. He was also a man who kept his word.
It’s a lot to live up to.