What’s in a Name?

by Elouise

Daddy, Mother, Elouise.  Until I started blogging, I was interested  mainly in the meaning of my name.  Now that I’m blogging I’m getting questions about the way I use other ‘names’: Daddy, my father, and Mother.  I’m also thinking again about my name.  Does it matter?

If you look up my name here, you’ll find a fabulous French meaning for Elouise:  ‘famous in war.’  I’ve always liked that meaning.  I know.  Little girls and little women are supposed to be demure and sort of helpless—in need of a fearless warrior or two.  Not I!  I’m the warrior.  Even though I’ve sometimes turned  so-called nonlethal weapons of destruction on myself.

I like the association of Heloise (a variation of Eloise) with French philosopher and theologian Abelard (as in Abelard and Heloise).  I know.  This secret, scandalous romance didn’t have a pretty ending.  But I still feel special when people I don’t even know associate me—plain vanilla me!—with someone as mysterious and apparently desirable as Heloise.

And then, of course, there’s child-terror Eloise who lives a charmed, exciting, precocious and exuberant life in print!  Who wouldn’t want to be a distant sister/cousin of Eloise?!

I grew up in homes full of Bibles.  One in particular always caught my eye.  The brown leather cover was embossed in gold:  Holy Bible (in the prominent central position), and down in the right-hand corner in lovely gold script:  Elouise Renich.

Unbelievable.  A Bible with my name on it–before I knew how to read, and probably before I was even born!  Yes, it was unbelievable.  Nonetheless, I just accepted the idea that it was my name, and never asked about it until I was an adult.

When I ask Mother about the name on her Bible, she hesitates a bit, then acknowledges that it’s her name.  Not her public name, but her Very Special Private Name given to her by my father on the occasion of their engagement to be married.

I’m flabbergasted.

Do you mean no one else knew he called you Elouise?

That’s right; no one else knew.

So where did ‘Elouise’ come from?

Well, your father took the E from my first name, plus my full middle name, Louise, put them together and came up with Elouise.

I was stunned.  But I didn’t think seriously about it for years.  By then I’d been working with a therapist and had already had the 1993 meeting with my parents.

One day, after my Mother’s death in 1999, I saw her old, worn Bible in a box of her belongings.  That got me thinking:

  • I wonder how she felt about giving me Her Private Name—the name my father had bestowed on her alone?
  • More thinking.  Then:  I wonder how she felt when she called me ‘Elouise?’
  • Even worse, how did it feel when she heard him call me by Her Private Name?
  • Later, I wondered something else:  What was going through his mind when he called me ‘Elouise,’ especially as I got older and more woman-like?

I’ll never know.  I’ve always loved my name.  It’s unusual.  To me it’s beautiful.  Just mine.  One of a kind.  And yes, I still wonder all the above.

A loaded term.  My father wanted us to call him that all the time.  To him, it was a term of endearment and a sign of admirably childlike dependence on him.

In the months leading up to my 1993 meeting with my parents, I had to make a decision.  What would I call him?  Not just at the meeting, but in all the conversations I had with my therapist and key family members leading up to that meeting.

I didn’t want to call him Daddy anymore.  It didn’t feel right.  It sounded out of tune.  I considered calling him Dad.  But even that felt way too friendly and informal, given the work I needed to do.

I decide that in work with my therapist and family members (not with my parents), I’ll simply refer to him by his first and last names.  This is compatible with the emotional distance I feel from him, and true to the reality that he and I are adults.

I still need, however, to find a comfortable term to use when I meet with him in person.  Some of my adult friends use their parents’ first names.  This sounds way too personal and familiar.  In the end I reluctantly settle on Dad.

At first it feels exceedingly awkward—but not nearly as uncomfortable as calling him Daddy, which carries tons of emotional freight.

By using Daddy, I might convey that I’m still the good little girl he wants me to be.  Or I might seem to be appeasing him by using the term he still values highly.  It might signal all is well and that this meeting we’re having is just to make me feel better.  Not really that important or life-changing.

All was not well, and the 1993 meeting wasn’t about his feelings or mine.  It was about stepping up and taking responsibility for telling him the truth about his harsh punishment of me.  In my voice and in my way, no matter how he took what I had to say or what I called him.

Over time I became comfortable calling him Dad when talking directly with him or with others who knew him.  However, with some family members and a few close friends I still use his first and last names or even his three initials.

I’m no longer his little girl—rebellious or not.   I’m a mature, responsible adult woman with a voice of my own and a deep need to tell the truth about myself, about God, and about this world God loves so much—including my father.

So why does Daddy keep showing up in this blog? 

When I began writing about my childhood, I almost instinctively fell into a pattern.  Daddy shows up chiefly when I’m using my childhood or teenage voice.  Using ‘Daddy’ conveys truth about my unhappy yet utter dependence upon him, loss of my voice, and the horror of having him treat me as he did.  The rest of the time he’s simply my father.

When I was growing up, it never crossed my mind to call my mother anything but ‘Mother.’  In her later years I sometimes wanted to call her by her first name–her most personal public name.  I wanted her to know that I saw her as one-of-a-kind, a person in her own right, not just another ‘mother.’

But I couldn’t do it.  For me, she had no clear personal identity apart from being my mother.  She brought me into this world and took care of my body and my physical needs as best she could.  Sadly, she found it difficult to touch my body or my heart to express affection or love.  Hello and goodbye hugs were difficult for both us.

Mother and I were so different that I sometimes wanted to shut her out.  Yet when I hear songs about mothers I often weep for what I never knew.  I also weep for what she gave me by way of the piano and music: a safe, private world of my own.  A place to retreat and just be myself.  A way of saying with my whole being what I couldn’t or didn’t dare say out loud.

If I listen well, I hear her reaching out to my heart by way of her piano playing, passing on to me what meant so much to her.  In my mind’s eye I see her listening nearby when I practice on the piano, available to help and encourage me when needed.

Sadly, I didn’t always want to play the piano for her; it felt too personal and intimate.  But as she lay in a hospital bed following a stroke, I softly sang my heart out at night when she became restless–her favorite hymns.  Then as she lay dying in hospice care, I played my heart out on an old piano just outside her room.  Just for Mother.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 1 June 2014