Learning your own name

Our name is the sound which somehow affects us  more than any other. Our brain lights up. We sit up and listen, wondering if something wicked or something wonderful our way comes. The name we are given to take through life is something which really counts. It also makes a good source for Learner Tales. Here’s mine.

Norfolk Broads 1967

Most people I know these days call me Gerry, but of course that is short for Gerald. Growing up, I can’t remember meeting another guy called Gerald, although there did seem to be plenty of Gerards for some reason.

I was around the age I am in the photograph illustrating this piece when it slipped out casually in a family conversation that my father had had a elder brother called Gerald and I was named after him.

Me : Really? First I’ve heard. Could I meet him? Write him a letter?

Dad : No, he died when he was about your age in an epidemic. Very sad.

Mum : But then you knew that.

Me : Er no. Just learned it from you as a matter of fact.

This was Mum and Dad’s way of sharing details about our family tapestry when we were kids. That changed a lot as they entered later life but, back in the early years, you had to be listening carefully if you didn’t want to miss essential information.

It will come as no surprise that this news of being named after somebody who had sadly died when he was about my age did spook me a little. I was already somebody who enjoyed imagining things,but here was the beginning of something different which would haunt me for years. At times, it took on the shape of a rather large looming shadow which threatened to engulf me, and at others it was simply a small object which I tripped over as I tiptoed through my dreams.

I didn’t know where to put this disturbing piece of learning until much later when I had been living and working in France for a long time. I felt far from where I’d started out and a little adrift. Which part of my cultural cluster was really me? Was I English like my mother-tongue? Or British like my passport? Had I become French without realizing it? Or was I simply an Irishman who’d lost his way? Nameshake was written during this identity crisis. It came out practically in one session with a word I’d never seen or heard before as the title to name it. And suddenly, everything settled into place. I was able to move on.

Nameshake

Finding that I was not the first to bear my fore and after names
Felt like uncovering a baptismal sleight of hand in glove
By which the clear light of my christening candle waned to mere wax,
Instantly burning identity down to the very snuff.

All because my father’s beloved brother had left his stillwarm shoes
For my muchlater feet to step where he had slipped them in his teens,
Lacing our two lives together with the common understanding
That, whoever the wind called, only I would be seen.

I now smile on the brightside of one set of sounds for our two lives,
Mine first heard on Merseyside, his uttered in long ago Dublin,
Nameshaking him into becoming my unwitting forefather
And I an Irishman, born again, not a name forsaken son.

Comments

When choosing a name for the website which supports this blog I was in a bit of a quandary as to what to go for. The idea of Gerry the Ferryman appealed for reasons which I have already explained but it felt a little abstract on its own. A Guy Called Gerald had already been taken by a brilliant musician. What to do? Gerry Kenny is such a common name that I had to find a way of making a difference. Thus gerrythekenny.com was born.

I guess we hear our names so often that they are just something we have to learn to live with. Hope this brings your story to the surface. If it does, let me or somebody know.

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2 Comments

  1. P.J.

    Great post, and poem. Poems get the hashing through done succinctly, and yet evoke something new/personal in each reader.
    Thank you!
    P.S. I remembered the expression “beyond the ken” as I read your post: the opposite of what you, Gerry, are striving for. 😊

  2. Gerry Kenny

    Thanks PJ. I’m glad you liked the post and the poem. A teacher once told me “Poetry is language under pressure,” which is what you call “getting the hashing through done succinctly”. I love the way poetry uses common language to say uncommon things. It is a valid form of expression for just about any topic, so I have decided to include more of it here, not apart or in its own protected space, but mixed in with the other stuff. In these uncomfortable times we need poetry and its capacity to formulate clearly and succinctly whatever feelings we experience. Crucial elections are coming in my UK homeland tomorrow, and in your US homeland in November. We both chose to make new lives in France a while ago and Sunday’s elections here promise a total transformation in the society we know. No question about it : we need poetry…

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