In a Name

my dad's school picture.

my dad’s school picture.

It was a well-known fact in our family, that my dad didn’t really like his name. He was named Christopher, and went by Chris most of his life. The root of the problem, was that in the 50’s and 60’s it was quite chic for every little Christine or Christina or to go by Chris as well, and as a child he found himself wishing that he had a more definitively masculine name. Something like James or John or Michael. There was one particularly traumatic incident where he’d signed up to play the violin in grade school, and the teacher, seeing that a child named Chris wanted to play the violin, couldn’t mask her surprise when a little boy arrived for his lesson.

He was, however, rather attached to the Saint whos name he shared. As a six year old, he asked his parents for a St Christopher medal, and wore it on a simple silver chain for his entire life. When my sister and I were little, he told us the story of the man who’d carried the Christ Child across the river. Even when Christopher’s feast day was removed from the Catholic calandar, the medal stayed safely around my dad’s neck. My stepmother wears it now, along with his wedding ring. The medal always seemed to me to be a part of my dad, a small outward symbol of some essential aspect of his personality, rather, I suppose, like a name.

He never, personally had the responsibility of naming boy children, but he always said that if my sister or I had shown up male we would have been bestowed with some combination of the solid Irish masculine names he had coveted in his youth, John Michael, or Michael James. He valued tradition in names, solidness, history. He once told me that if it was it was up to him, my name would have been Catherine. It was my young romantic mother that brought him round to the Welsh/Irish variation that in the early eighties was still highly unusual. When I was a little girl, I only knew of two other Caitlins: Dylan Thomas’ wife, and a girl in my ballet class. Our teacher found the existence of two Caitlins hilarious and always paired us together. It was pretty fun back then, like having two Esmes or Desdemonas.

Me, backstage at a ballet recital.

Me, backstage at a ballet recital.

My dad was still alive when my sister became pregnant, and he was over the moon at the news of his first biological grandchild. My sister was convinced the baby would be a girl, and would be named Clare, she and her husband discussed boy names too, just in case, but hadn’t really settled on anything.

The day my dad died, and we were all sitting in the living room, saying stupid things and drinking water, my dad’s priest, Father Whitney was with us, and he said that the next baby born would most likely have my dad’s spirit. Six months later to the day my sister went in to labor, and in the early hours of the following morning she gave birth to her first son, my dad’s grandson, my nephew, a being who in his first few weeks of life has managed to baffle all who know him with his absolute perfection. He flails about with his ten tiny fingers, eats and sleeps and sometimes fixes on you with eyes the bewitching slate blue of the very young. It is much too early yet to know if he has inherited my dad’s spirit, but he does bear his name.

My sister laughed so hard when she learned her baby was a boy. “Are you kidding me?!” she asked the ultrasound technician. The tech wasn’t kidding, and you couldn’t very well go naming a little boy Clare, so my sister and her husband had to come up with a new name for their firstborn. She considered naming him for our dad right away, but hesitated. Was it really a fitting tribute to give a baby a name its original owner hadn’t much cared for? “Do you think he’d like it that I named him Christopher?” She asked me, “Do you think it would be okay?” I assured her I thought our dad would be very flattered to have a namesake. And I reminded her that his main reasons for disliking the name were no longer relevant. I don’t know any woman under the age of forty who goes by ‘Chris’. Besides, the most important thing was that she and her husband liked the name, if the baby grew up and didn’t like it he could go by any nickname he preferred, or by his middle name, or his initials.

But for now the family has a new Christopher, or “little Chris” as he is most often referred too. And in the world where little Chris will grow up, among the Taylers and Alexs his name is seen as very strong, traditional, and masculine.

Little Chris.

Little Chris.

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A Whale Tale

My dad on the fishing boat.

My dad on the fishing boat.

When I was a little girl my dad worked every summer as a commercial fisherman in Alaska. He’d be gone for three months, and return with a full beard, a few presents, and the extra money we relied on to get through one more year on the salaries of a part time ESL teacher and a home day care provider with two small kids. I’m sure I missed him. My dad was such a fixture in my day to day life throughout the year that suddenly having three months without him must have been difficult. There was no Skype back then, no email, he would write us letters, a few of which have survived.

I do remember, or think I remember, going to pick him up at the airport on his return. It was always a bit of an event. With my sister and I in new dresses or hats (the hats were once famously were left on the roof of the car as we drove away from the airport and lost forever.) And this being the age before super-sized airport security, it was also back when you could go all the way to the gate and wait with baited breath for the passengers to deplane, craning your neck and jumping up and down to try and catch sight of the one you were waiting for.

The summer when I was four years old, my dad brought me a stuffed beluga whale back from his annual Alaska trip. I loved Raffi music, especially the song “baby beluga”, so it was an appropriate gift. The whale was a simple design with a satin lined open mouth, a stitched black eye, two fins and a tail. The whale was as long as I was tall and the story goes that when he presented it to me in the airport I wrapped both arms around her and pressed my face into her soft side, absolutely enraptured with her sudden presence in my life. I named her Whaldy. I was in a very literal phase in the naming of my toys.

Me sleeping with Whaldy and my other toys.

Me sleeping with Whaldy and my other toys.

Whaldy went everywhere with me. I slept with her every night, she was perfect for sleeping with, being about the size and shape of a four year old body pillow with fins. When we started the yearly flights to and from Japan, Whaldy would fly too. She was too big to fit in a suitcase, so the first few years I carried her through the airport, or used one of my stretchy headbands as a belt to attach her to my side. Later my mom made a special carry-on bag for me. It was like a duffel bag, the perfect size for Whaldy to ride in, and lined with pockets for all my books and games and snacks.

My dad was pretty fond of Whaldy too, he would often borrow her and take a nap on the floor with my whale for a pillow. When I was in college, my mom found a stuffed orca whale and got it suggesting I might want to give it to my dad so he’d finally have his own whale to sleep with. But the orca, while large and lovely and plush, wasn’t structured in quite the same body pillow like proportions, and so I just kept her, and let her and Whaldy hang out together on top of my dresser.

As I grew up I would sometimes pretend to be an adult and not sleep with my whale anymore, especially If I had company. I would move Whaldy off the bed and pretend that she always stayed on the dresser with the orca, looking on. After all, it was silly to still take a stuffed animal to bed, and I could sleep just fine without her, so she’d often stay on the dresser for months at a time.

The day my dad died I came home to an empty house. My roommates and I were in the middle of moving, and they had already started sleeping at the new place. I was a numb, slow moving, shadow of a human being. I’d spent the day moving from one room of my dad and stepmom’s house to another, drinking water whenever anyone gave it to me and trying to come to terms with this being my life. I thought I might go spend the night with my sister, but once I got home I couldn’t face leaving again, not even to drive what amounted to around the corner and climb the stairs to her apartment. Instead I took Whaldy off the dresser, wrapped by arms around her, pressed my face into her side and cried until I fell asleep. I didn’t sleep well that first night, but it was only by holding tightly to the stuffed whale that had been by my side for the last twenty eight years, that I managed to sleep at all.

Me and Whaldy today.

Me and Whaldy today.