all of the selves we Have ever been
I have many real names.
None of them are captured accurately on my birth certificate.
Each name belongs to a different voice, to a unique relationship, and was given to me at a special time in my life. Each name contains a precious story. Together the voices and the stories form the person that is me.
Save for my younger brother, it is mostly my family that calls me Lilli-ann, the name formed from the letters of my genotype. That name claims me as a member of a large, extended tribe and its history. My brother called me Lilli Bagilli and sometimes, just Bagill. Like a secret handshake, it was a special language between us that reflected our sibling bond.
My best friend from high school calls me Lilli with a rise in pitch and emphasis on the last l-i. The sound of my name coming through her voice brings back a shared adolescence and the experience of two girls growing up Catholic in unique family circumstances. Her parents became my other parents. When she calls my name, her parents speak to me too.
Two of my oldest and dearest friends are women I met during my early working years in the city. Both of these women are named Kathy. They each call me Lil. We share the long history of becoming grown-ups together. Each of these Kathys came to my aid after the births of my children. They are more sisters than friends.
Jetz calls me Buff. Jetz and I started our professional, post-graduate-school-lives together working in the same mental health clinic. We each got married and started families at about the same time. I knew her and her husband throughout their courtship, a connection deepened by that shared memory after her husband died too young. Jetz and I also share roots in Pittsburgh and a passionate love of books.
Many years after working in the mental health clinic, another co-worker would take to calling me Lilli B. We were two working girls from out of town with no local family or friends. Sitting side-by-side each day for years, we became faithful friends. There is no one kinder than Kristi the social worker. I sat with her mother as her mother’s life was coming to an end. I know that Kristi will sit with me when my time comes. Kristi is a sister-daughter-friend.
The true identity of others has been revealed to me in similar fashion.
When my friend Kathy speaks of her parents, Mary and Bill, I feel the deep love and respect she holds for them, how much she misses them, and I hear the example of how children and their parents can grow into adult best friends.
I have heard similar examples from spouses. A few years ago, I sat in a small auditorium filled with new Air Force recruits. The squadron Commander arrived to address the group. Full of youthful energy, the Commander’s love of both military service and his squadron was reflected in his words. The Commander’s sincerity was apparent as he shared his values and expectations with the nervous audience. But it was when he mentioned his wife that his character was fully revealed. The Commander spoke of “Jen” with reverence. This was a woman of consequence in his life. Jen was not just a partner, but a part of him. A woman loved. His Jen.
Hearing the young Commander speak of his wife reminded me of my Uncle Toni, the oldest son of my hardworking immigrant grandparents. T survived the Great Depression and polio. Faithful head of a large extended family, Uncle T married at a later age than his peers. For the rest of his life, T continued to refer to his wife, Nancy, as his bride, his Nan. And even after a lifetime, it seemed Tony could still not believe his good fortune. He swooned like a teenage boy who just met the girl of his dreams. Through a role reversal, T was the humble country boy awakened by the kiss of a beautiful princess. Nan made T into a prince and transformed his life into a fairy tale. Nan. Another word for magic.
There are many other people whose names have been spoken in my presence. I never met most of them, but I know them from the voices that speak their names. Perhaps, the greatest testimonies to our lives are not trophies, degrees, and newspaper-worthy achievements, not our name in lights or in print. Our true identities are not revealed in the words on official documents, but through the feelings shared when others give voice to our names.