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What’s in a name? Tribute to my Dad

November 14, 2009

“It is true that those we meet can change us, sometimes so profoundly that we are not the same afterwards, even unto our names.  Witness Simon who is called Peter, Matthew also known as Levi, Nathaniel who is also Bartholomew, Judas, not Iscariot, who took the name Thaddeus, Simeon who went by Niger, Saul who became Paul.” –Yann Martel, Life of Pi

            As a Sunday schooler, I learned that Adam gave all the living things on the earth a name.  We just assumed, I guess, that he named all those things that aren’t living too.  In any event, either by Adam or by someone else to whom he was related, every thing had a name.  What a sense of power Adam must have felt.  Today, even if you wanted to, you couldn’t just change the name of something to suit your own needs better.  It just doesn’t work that way.  Since Adam is no longer here, he has left this tradition of giving names to newborns in the carefully protected hands of parents.  You just don’t get to choose your own name.  You need one before you get to that point yourself, so you are given one.  A name is just that important.

            I, like everyone else I knew, started school at the age of five.  Kindergarten.  A fine time, in most respects.  My mom packed me a lunch most mornings in the little metal lunch box that she had bought for me—the one with the western cowboy theme on the front, a map and spinner game on the back and a square blue thermos for cold and hot things on the inside.  Sometimes, as she waited with us at the end of the driveway for the Tate’s bus to come up the road from where Grammy lived, she would tell me that she had put a little surprise in my box too.  I wasn’t to open it until lunch time though.  That never really worked the way that she wanted it to, but she didn’t seem to mind much.

I started school at the Kenduskeag Elementary School because the Morison Memorial in my hometown of Corinth didn’t offer kindergarten, or first and second grades for that matter.  You had to be in the third grade to go there.  Every morning at about ten past seven the school bus would roll up out front of our driveway, just before the mailboxes on the right hand side.  We’d look both ways to make sure all of the cars had stopped, cross the street to Mr. Ronco’s side of the road, and board the long yellow bus, right in front of where the last elm trees I ever saw had been growing.  Todd’s friend Timothy Wright would have gotten on only a few houses back, as would Jenny McCorrison, who would grow to become a friend of Missy and me.  Jenny lived just past Grammy’s place.

From our place, we would head up the hill towards town, and turn right on to the Ridge Road where we would pick up the Stefanik and Greatorex kids, the Hursts, the Wilson kids and all the way at the end (well at least the end of the bus route because any of the houses further up the street were actually in Charleston) the Casavant boys.  The bus would turn into their yard, which used to be mom’s yard when she the age I was then, and head back out to the Hudson Road.  We’d then head down the Marsh Road, named for Dorothy and Henry who owned to big farm on the other end, and collect the Hills and sometimes, when they were living there, Sarah Tabor’s two kids, each a bit older than I was.  As soon as we were back out on to route 43, the Hudson Road, we took a left and headed straight to the Morison School where we were dropped off to play for a while as we waited for another bus to take us on to Kenduskeag.

Somewhere along that bus route, in those first few years of school, is where I first encountered my Roman soldier.  It was in one of those ugly green vinyl seats toward the front of the yellow bus, seated with two of my peers, when someone first picked on my name.  I felt persecuted and alone, like I was being made to carry my own cross up the aisle through backpacks and shouting children.  I was a small kid, and my older brother Todd already had friends on the bus so he never hung around long enough to help.  I felt really alone that day, but mostly angry.  What was wrong with my name after all?  It wasn’t too strange sounding.

            I have asked Mom several times over the years where she got my name, James, from but she has never been able to recall anything specific about how she came up with it.  “It just seemed like a nice name, I guess.”  No matter, no one ever caused me any grief with that name.  I take that back.  I did have a bit of a time getting some to call me James, not Jim or Jimmy or even worse, Jamie (which always sounded like it should be a girl’s name instead).  Usually though, with a little insistence, I came out ahead on that front.

I guess the nickname giving craze just couldn’t be helped.  Even Mrs. Hopkins, my first grade teacher who I admired very much, needed a little help remembering that my name was James.  She tried all of the versions of my name previously mentioned before I snapped at her one day a little moniker that I had come with for her.  My choice of names though must have seemed less than pleasing or even satisfactory as she yarded me out of that classroom and down the hall to the office no one occupied.  She sat me down harshly on an old wooden chair and dialed the phone.

“Mrs. Wilson?  Yes this is Mrs. Hopkins, James’ teacher.  Do you have a minute?”

“Of course,” mom must have said, “how can I help?  Is there something wrong?”

Mrs. Hopkins went on to explain in her agitated state that I had just called her a foul name.  She clarified that it was when she called on me moments earlier.  She stated that she was a bit shocked to hear me shout back at her this new word I must have picked up some place just because she had called me Jim.

“Well, didn’t he tell you that his name was James?” my mother would have inquired.  “He is usually fairly insistent on that.”  Mrs. Hopkins agreed that I had indeed on several occasions asked her to call me James, but that she didn’t think much of it.  The other James in the class certainly had no issue with being called Jim or Jimmy.  “Well, if he said his name is James, I guess you had better call him James, then” my mother said, “I will speak to him about talking to you like he did when he gets home.”  And she did!  She defended me when she needed to, and made it clear to the teacher that I was to be taken seriously, but from the spanking that I got when I got home, she also made it quite evident just who was in charge of giving out names!

No, it wasn’t my first name that gave me trouble that day on the bus.  People didn’t seem to mind that name too much.  It was my middle name that caused me grief.  Even that, Robert, hadn’t seemed terribly offensive to me.

I don’t recall how it must have come out that my middle name was Robert.  My guess in hindsight is that I mentioned it to one of the kids seated next to me one day when I was in that phase where discovering that almost everyone had a middle name that they never used seemed important.  Dad’s middle name was Ray, which we learned many years later had been a man my grandmother was particularly fond of before marrying Grampy.  Mom had a middle name taken from her dad’s aunt that she wouldn’t use even if you paid her, and Todd’s was Eugene, like my grandfather’s first name.  Mom loved her father very much, so giving his name to Todd seemed like an appropriate thing to do.  My mom loved me even more, I guess, since she managed not to give me my dad’s dad’s name, Lafayette, or Lyfie for short.  Lyfie had a fantastic sense of humor though—I guess he had to since his middle name was Anis, which sounded a lot like some other body part as he would point out laughingly.

I had always been a bit different than all of the other kids I guess.  I was a bit of a runt and cared about school and learning.  I was showing the early signs of being a geek who would have a hard time fitting in right from the beginning.  As I was graduating from high school years later, mom said to one of her friends, “He came home from school that first day and said to me, ‘Mommy, I am so bored.’  Things never got any better.”  And they didn’t.

This morning on the bus when I must have been discussing middle names with anyone who cared to listen was particularly rough.  There was a boy, older than Todd was even, who had moved into the house on the corner next to Grammy Rowe’s old place, who was just mean.  “Robert!” he shouted.  “Robert?  You look more like a Roberta!!”  For several days he called me Roberta every time I got on or off the bus.  I tried my best to not listen to him, just like Mrs. Hopkins had suggested that I do.  She was right; he eventually dropped the issue because I didn’t react to him.

Inside though, I was crushed.  I was so mad.  I should have stood up for myself better.  I should have said more to make that bully stop.  Right then, I hated my middle name and vowed that I was not going to be called Roberta again and refused to talk about it any further.  I also refused for some time to use my middle name.

Days later, in the play yard at the Morison School, Mr. Thibodeau, who was the much younger brother to one of dad’s aunts, asked me why I was in such a sour mood.  I explained to him what had happened.  Since he knew my dad as family, I felt he would understand.  He said to me, “Well, James, you shouldn’t let those bigger kids make you feel like your middle name is any less important to you, just because they are mean to you today.  You should think about all the great things your dad can do, and decide later if you don’t in fact really like your middle name.”  With that, the bells rang out from the top of school, a bus drove up to the school yard, and we boarded to go to Kenduskeag.  I am not sure if I was feeling any better about things after Mr. Thibodeau’s pep talk, but I did get to think about my dad for a bit.

My dad, Robert, makes his living by taking disparate ideas and pencil sketches and turning them into a well-constructed work of artisanship.  Blue prints get corrected and become public spaces; machine tools never before ‘played with’ turn out metal works of great utility.  There just seemingly isn’t anything that he can’t do.  In short, he will build you a house or help you remodel your own as fine as for himself as for another; he believes in doing the best job that he can every time.  He lives that Maine creed–Every job is a reflection on his good name and reputation; and, there is a way in which the community depends on him to do his work just that well.  He is a touchstone and his existence means that these qualities of honesty and authenticity are still among us.  It is not a wonder that he turns down potential clients in town because there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for him to work, or because he knows they cannot afford him.  He is widely respected, and he deserves it.  That in short, is the dad I know.

Despite the hardships of living in a state with a depressed economy which does not enjoy any major industry except its potato-growing and its lobster-fishing, my Dad can not envision his life any place else.  That isn’t to say that he and my mother haven’t kicked around a few ideas and dreams.  As a young couple, he and mom toyed with the idea of moving to Connecticut, where mom could have used her university training to work in computers, but they decided not to go, opting rather to live where their roots had long been planted.  When Marion’s aunt Olive passed away, they slipped in to conscious reverie about what it would be like to inherit a Florida home, a place to escape the Maine winters.  Then, of course, it dawned on them that they would forever be running damage control against the hurricanes, and were grateful that her stepson Leland inherited the place instead.  Closer to retirement, they entertained the notion of getting a second home in Arizona where it is warm and dry in the winter months.  Faced with the reality of making the trip West twice a year though, they opted instead to get a two-tier snow blower with a heated cab and radio, and wrapping under ground piping in heat tape so as to make the winters more livable.  Yes indeed.  My father, with his Aroostook County accent still recognizable to the native ear even some half century after leaving ‘the County’, is a Mainer, or better said ‘Maine-iac’, through and through.

Known as ‘Bob’ to the people for and with whom he works (though in the family we always call him Robert), Dad is recognized by everyone as a very hard worker, with a tremendous sense of honesty and integrity.  Eight hours has always meant eight hours to him, though admittedly, some eight hour periods were longer than others.  When I was a child, he labored all day, coming home to eat dinner with us, and left for a second job only to return just before we were to go to bed.  His own mother, Avis, used to say that he worked too hard and should slow down a bit, though, I might add, never hesitated to call on him for help if she wanted the job done right.  For all of his efforts, Mom never let dinner be late.  If it is 4:30 p.m., then the table is set and the kids’ hands are washed.  (Some would even argue that he was, as we discovered later, “spoiled” by his wife’s diligence.)

Impressively, when Missy and I were small and needed new beds, he tore a couple of pages out of the Sears catalogue and toddled off to his workshop.  He returned a few hours later, having combined a couple of the designs into one harmonious piece–a Captain’s bed, as he called it, complete with bookcase headboard, two large drawers and shelves underneath.  He made Melissa’s first, then mine the following night.  The genius of it was that they were designed so that mine was a right-hand side, and hers a left, making it possible to put the two side by side later as one piece.  They were the finest beds with routered edges and deep walnut color; the drawers made to slide easier with the help of Ivory bar soap rubbed onto the wooden rails they sat on; they are fine examples of his ‘Yankee’ ingenuity, combining both our sleep and storage needs in one unit.  In a like fashion, he designed much of the furniture for the house my parents reside in from night stands to bookcases, to curio and china cabinets.  No two pieces are alike since each was in essence an experiment on his latest Christmas toy.

While you can’t send him to the basement pantry with a list and expect everything that is on it to come back with him, Dad has always been able to find solutions to seemingly impossible tasks with some ease.  His tendency to be a linear thinker when it comes to household chores and a systems thinker while ‘on the job’ probably accounts for much of his success as a job foreman for the Perry and Morrill company to which he has dedicated the better part of his adult life.  He can see the end of a project before it starts and knows how to drive a hard line towards attaining that goal of finishing a job on time or ahead of schedule.  More importantly, though rarely recognized by the Nason family which runs the company, he has saved more than one of their jobs from ruin this way.  No one can accuse those Nason brothers of being excellent managers of either time or human resources!

In his private practice as well as his professional life, Dad can honor most requests, or at least guide the customer in a better direction if need be.  In that light, his friend, and part-time employer of more than 30 years, veterinarian Barbara Farren of Hampden, Maine, says of him, “That’s why I love Bobby.  He is the only man in my life who never says no to me!”  She and her dentist husband Gary have enjoyed his work for decades from remodeling their offices to building their home.  Of course, none can ignore the fact that Barbara may love Robert for more than just his carpentry skills–he does, after all, go to great lengths to bring her Saturday doughnuts–the glazed raised kind, not the cake-like ones.  The shortest route to that vet’s heart is through her tummy.

I can safely say, after all of that, that my dad is a pretty fantastic guy.

It had to have been a few years later when I got to Middle School, and we were told that we should adopt a “signature”, that special way of always signing our name that no one else used, or could replicate.  A signature should be good for signing checks and other important documents.  A signature should be as unique to us as our eye color or hair color.  In our absence, it represents us and says something about who we are.

How would I sign important things?  My teachers said I had to decide.  How would I sign my name that said something about me?  “James R. Wilson”, I wrote.  It looked good.  It seemed important looking.  Moreover, it had my middle initial in it.  To hell with that wretched boy who had picked on me because of my name and how he may or may not have perceived me.  We weren’t friends.  He meant nothing to me.  But dad–he does.

“James R. Wilson”, I wrote because it said something about me, and also a little something about the man of whom I am most proud.  I didn’t get one of my grandfather’s names.  I got dad’s name.  While we don’t share a lot of carpentry skills like he and Todd do, we do share a quick mind and sense of honor.  We’re both survivors and problem solvers.  We are also compassionate and caring.  We’re a lot a like, though sometimes people miss it because I can’t pound a nail in straight to save my life and dad didn’t get all the schooling that I paid for over time.

My signature is unique to me, and people have even commented about it over time.  Bryan Mott, the guy who tunes my piano in Madison, related to me one day, “Thank you for your letter, James.  I didn’t have any trouble remembering you.  I knew right away it was you since you signed your letter James R. Wilson—do you always sign it with your middle initial?  You use your middle initial more often than most; I guess that is why it seemed so memorable to me.”  Truthfully, you aren’t likely to see any documents by me not bearing that full signature.

“James R. Wilson”, I wrote.  And I have ever since.  Mr. Thibodeau’s pep talk, in the play yard at the Morison School, got me to think for the first time about who my dad is and what he represents to me.  I haven’t stopped thinking about how he guides me.  In returning to Corinth during my vacations, I look to dad for qualities I hope are still within myself, for something of which I am still capable, regardless of where I now live or where I live out my life.  Yes, indeed–today, even if I wanted to, I couldn’t just change my name to something to suit my own needs better.  It just doesn’t work that way.  A name is just that important.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Marion permalink
    February 2, 2011 4:14 pm

    You must be a chip off the old block as I always sign my name using my middle initial. Marion S. [the S being my maiden name initial for Sweet. I never use my middle name, initial E…..who wants to called MES.] Like you, kids teased me with the initials of mes s. when I changed to the S. for the middle initial , Sweet [my last name] became Marion Sour. Kids can be so creative in their teasings. Dad was a Sweet and I was proud of it like you. When I started my married life I wanted some of the old {hence the S.} and I immediatly listed it that way with social security. Being a woman, i guess it’s nice to have the option.

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