I sit on the worn wooden stairs of my front porch and think about my name. It is a heavy old name. A great grandmother’s name. A name for old maids and librarians. I wish somehow that I had been called Jenny or Jessy or Kelly. Anything that ended softly would be nice. But Eleanor is a family name and I have been told to be proud of it. But I’m not. The great grandmother for whom I was named was a tyrant, a bitter “couldn’t be bothered’” sort of person who’d managed her family with a matriarchal fist. She’d married a world war one soldier, the only New Zealander from his regiment to survive Gallipoli, and then spent the rest of her life surviving his drunken abuse. She’d raised a family of PTSD alcoholics and survived them as well. Now only the grandchildren and great grandchildren are left. It is this hardened, battle scared old woman who calls me namesake.
Eleanor is not a name to be proud of. It is a name to survive. I have asked to be called Leah or Ella. Ella has a sweet sounding ring to it. Ella is soft, playful and endearing in a way that Eleanor can never be. And, Ella will fit in nicely with all the Jenny’s, Jessy’s and Kelly’s at my school. Above everything I need to find a way to fit in. I needed to be pretty and sweet and liked, to be shielded and made innocuous by acceptance. If I were called Ella things would be better. When I ask to shorten Eleanor my mother invariably says, “I gave you a strong name to make you strong. I named you for a queen of France and England and a first lady who led the country in war. Many great woman besides your Nana have been called Eleanor. Never let anyone shorten it. Never let them take it from you.”
“Stop mouthing words when you think. It makes you look like a crazy person.” I didn’t hear mother’s approach. Mommy usually moves through the house like a buffalo but somehow she’s managed to creep up on me only to bulldozer my thoughts with her words. “You look like you’re talking to yourself. You look like one of those lunatics I used to take care of at the nursing home.”
“I was just thinking.” I suck in my lips, clenching them between my teeth so they won’t move again. I can still feel my teeth biting into the soft flesh, my seven year old body tensing at the sound and meaning of her words. It is so sunny out, so sunny I am nearly blinded the moment I look up. Through squinted eyes I find my mother, a dark figure outlined by sunlight, a contoured shape in a tight tee and bellbottom jeans. Mommy is violently beautiful. She wears her thick red hair in a pile like a crown on top of her head. Every strand sparkles in the sunlight. When it’s loose and free it falls all the way to her feet just like Crystal Gail’s. Her eyes are sharp and piercing like a hawks eyes and her jaw is strong and hard. She is strong and hard. I look away, my eyes stung by sunlight and an internal comparison I’ll never find peace with. My own hair is thin and as plain brown as baby poop. I have my father’s hair, my father’s large sad eyes and his round plump body. Glancing up again I see Mommy’s small waist, round hips and large breasts. She is beautiful in a way I already know I will never be.
“Go and play with the other kids.” I look across the street to where my sister plays with Jenny and her dozen brothers. Getting up, I walks slowly towards the picket fence thinking how My sister’s name is also a heavy old name. My sister was named for a library because Mommy wanted her to grow up wise. But unlike me, my sister is allowed to shorten her name. She is called Sis; like Kelly and Jenny, Sis is a soft and friendly name.
Still just inside the gate I stop to look at the Shasta Daisies that line the picket fence. Their fully flowered heads gleam so bright white it’s hard to look at them under the hot Utah sun. A bee floats lazily from one head to another, drifting slowly passed me and over to the old mounting block that stands to the right of the walkway. If my Old Mare were here I would lead her up to that stone block and use it to climb on her back. Then I would ride all over the avenues. I would ride past the old Governor’s mansion, past the red brick mansion with its rot iron widows walk and matching coach house. I would ride all the way up to Lyndsey Gardens, past the cemetery where the Civil War veterans are buried. Sitting down on the old raised stone, I imagine it is my horse I feel beneath me, the heavy Boxelder trees shading our ride with thickly leafed branches that hang over the heat drenched streets. Clip clop, Old Mare moves through the Avenues as, lost in my imaginings, my lips begin forming each silent word I think.