My great-aunt Sarah lost her arm while working in a linen mill. The gruesome details I can’t recall, either because I haven’t heard the story in decades, or my ears froze at a certain point during the telling of her tale. I know it happened somewhere around 1920, when mills were poorly run and working conditions unsafe, as my dad, who remembered his aunt with pride, was a boy at the time, born in 1910.
What impressed me beyond the horror of an arm brutally severed from a woman who belonged to me, though I never actually knew her, was how the twenty-something Sarah refused to be curtailed by her fate. Apparently, after Sarah wept, coming to terms with a radically altered image of herself, she set her mind to getting on with life and getting things done. In other words, when cleaning time rolled around, Sarah swept.
I can imagine my young father’s jaw dropping at the sight of his maimed aunt wielding her broom with a deftness born of defiance, tucking the end into the crook of her lone arm, gripping the shaft with her remaining hand while back and forth like a bell she swept herself into deep or imaginative thought, a lulling rhythm, or a triumphant flight from her grief.
When I consider my attraction to brooms, the beauty I find in them—particularly the handcrafted variety—and how, since as far back as I remember, I’ve taken to the work of sweeping with gusto, I realize I’ve identified with my great-aunt. While whisking away, I seem to be almost channeling her. Perhaps I’m channeling my dead father as well, in hope of winning his admiration and praise in the way Aunt Sarah had done. If you saw me with my hickory broom, its stout rough-hewn handle and sturdy bundle of broomcorn, you might consider me something of a mean sweeper. I tackle walkways, patios, porches, and rafters (even cobwebbed regions of my mind) with something akin to Sarah’s fervor, or all the fury she might have preserved for the blithe, steely perpetrator of her injury.
If only they’d named me for her. Sarah, such a strong, timeless name—that of Abraham’s wife: an adventurous, wayfaring woman renowned for her beauty, who in her old age miraculously conceived the prophet Isaac. I wonder if Sarah’s prolonged dearth of procreativity could be traced, in part, to some previously unnamed obstacle to her coming of age, a clog in her sensibility.
A late bloomer myself, I’ve never felt much at home with my name, which might be related to having had so many of them. In honor of my mother’s aunt Pat, who was also my godmother, I was baptized Patricia Jane. I don’t know the exact origin of my middle name other than that my mother must have liked how it sounded in combination with my first one. As a young child, I reveled in a hand-me-down storybook about a doll named Matilda Jane who, when her mother called, “never seemed to hear at all.”
Since my Catholic upbringing required that I select a confirmation name, in honor of one of the saints, I reluctantly considered several of them. After my fifth-grade teacher consulted her list of saints and assured me that there was, indeed, a St. Jane (Frances de Chantal), in which case my middle name could double for my confirmation one, I opted for the status quo. Precociously aware of the economics of beauty (both from a need to make do and an early love of poetry) and possessing a strong predilection for groupings of three, I viewed any alteration to my name’s existing arrangement as both untidy and cumbersome, a disturbance to my delicately tuned sense of order and harmony.
My mother nicknamed me Patsy, which most of my family members still call me despite my bygone efforts to convert them to Pat. When I was a toddler, my father dubbed me PJ. Soon after, some of our relatives, my older brothers, and all of their friends followed suit, which was okay with me until around third grade, when a pack of boys in my class began heckling me with their sing-song chorus, “PJ Pajamas,” on the long and winding trek home from school each day.
The teachers at my school, the Sisters of St. Joseph, addressed us exclusively by our formal names, so to them and no one else I was Patricia. My classmates (other than those jeering boys) called me Patsy because I introduced myself that way. By seventh grade, however, I’d discovered, to my dismay, the pejorative meaning of the informal version of the word. Fearing the law of self-fulfilling prophecy, the likelihood that I’d eventually be regarded as a patsy (or perhaps even become one), I promptly re-nicknamed myself Patty. It wasn’t until after I graduated from college and joined the workforce that I began introducing myself as Pat, an abrupt and all too plain a name for a woman with a yen for lyrical shapes and sounds, fearing the little-girlish Patty would garner less respect. Today I answer to all five versions of my name, though only one person, an old friend from the neighborhood, still calls me PJ.
My fondness for the sound of S might have begun with my mother reading me the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” which I loved to recite. Eventually, S-words like sequester, savanna, slumbering, and soliloquy, along with alliterative word pairings and phrases such as sailing ships, swift and seamless, and smooth and silky, took its place. Like soothing shapes, these sounds brush against a region in the upper-right hemisphere of my brain that I could touch if my hand could reach inside my head.
I’m equally fond of the shape of S as in time-honored paisleys, camelback couches, and theatrical wing chairs, man-made objects that only pale in comparison to nature’s creations: the long, elegant necks of geese, serpentine river valleys, the contours of a face as traced by a finger, or the lilt in a mother’s voice.
The S-curve is a line with attitude and feeling, melody within, and beyond the scope of music. It’s fluid and double-jointed like a gymnast and expansive like the Milky Way, the human mind, or the belly of a woman cradling a child. It’s something clever too, as in a simple turn of phrase, a figure of speech, or a soul-stirring line of prose or poetry. Opening itself freely to earth and sky, past and future, it can make bold and generous strokes in the present. It is a literal and figurative bending of the rule, the basic shape of life itself, and the signature of the aesthetic.
When the metal swing set in my childhood backyard corroded after more than fifteen years of serving my siblings and me, my father finally dissembled it. My sense of deprivation must have been palpable, as one day the mother of one of my neighborhood playmates offered me carte blanche access to their swing set whenever they went away. A white picket gate tucked into a privet hedge ushered me into the hallowed grounds of their yard, where, for hours, I’d swing and sing, belting out popular songs such as “Que Sera Sera,” “Moon River,” and “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” which I’d picked up from radio and late-fifties TV. I wonder if the pendulum shape and sound of S remind me of this childhood pastime by which, as the seventh and last child of late middle-age and overwrought parents, I managed to calm and comfort my nascent self.
As odd as it may seem, the written form of the name Sarah appeals to my eye too: the swanlike capital S at the beginning, of course, heralding the exotic sound that follows, flowing forth like an aria from the vocal cords of S. The erudite h at the end lines up neatly with the balanced threesome in the middle—its decorative role lending a bit of whimsy to the word’s overall design.
Not many names in the English-speaking world, at least that I know of, end with the single (unblended) consonant h. For boys, there’s Noah, Jonah, and Isaiah—obviously, there’s something Hebrew going on here, which calls to mind Yahweh, the God of Israel, according to some experts, interchangeable with Jehovah. For girls, there’s Sarah, Hannah, and Delilah, as well as a friend of my mother’s by the name of Beulah. Far more names, particularly female ones, however, end with the letter a: Amanda, Maria, Samantha, and Olivia, not to mention Roberta, Martha, Jessica, and Tabitha, all rhyming with Sarah. There’s also my aunt Anna, an exemplary woman on my mother’s side, whose name more closely resembles Sarah.
Come to think of it, my name also ends with a. As in Sarah, both the first and last syllables make the ah sound, so that Patricia resembles Sarah and rhymes with it too. (Perhaps they named me for her after all.) To my ear, the ah is uplifting and melodic as in Gloria and alleluia, solemn as in Torah, and all of these as in amen. Such primitive sounds whisper to us through the ages, like strains from the first mothers’ crooning songs, similar to how the light from ancient stars reaches us today.
A few years ago I began learning oil painting. I think my paintbrushes are like little brooms. They sweep and swipe, wending the straight and circuitous paths of the untold brushes preceding them. Lately I can’t stop painting crows. Those two opposing curves, yin and yang, that form the bird’s body, comprise a single swerving line not unlike the country roads I follow on my way home from painting class or the meandering path of my thoughts as outlined on this page.
Upon learning that two Pats had signed up for his class, our teacher, David, asked if there was some other name he could call me. Jumping at the chance for a new name, a kind of nom de plume, I suppose, I blurted out Ruby, which I’d come to admire for its resonant sound and earthy durability: bloodred, scintillating, organic, and perpetual. Surely a woman by the name of Ruby, if at all less chic or sophisticated than Sarah, would be equally robust, spirited, and by all means passionate. Possessed of a certain irreverence and sassiness, hers would be a rugged sort of beauty, resilient as a precious stone. She would know, unflappably, just who she was, a line with definitive contours able to hold firm in the face of doubt and uncertainty. Perhaps, too, the name Ruby represents some long-denied edge to my personality, deceptively clad in a gemstone of a word, a part of me that drifted off to sleep beneath the subtle, swaddling spell of S.
At the end of class, I turn cadmium-yellow-light when Dave responds to my work with “Hey, Rube, I really like your painting,” offered in his mellow, slang-strewn artist-speak, not simply for the kudos but the playful affection the rough-and-tumble Rube conveys. Then, I drive home in the dark Zen style, at one with my vehicle, as if we are a river carving the twists and turns of landscape. There is so much joy and freedom to be had with a curved line, so much movement, rhythm, feeling, and sound that could, it seems, go on forever—like a feisty one-armed woman with a broom, the winged song of a bird, or the door of a heart flung open. It is said that the work of the seraphim is to contemplate the glory and perfection of God all day. In the sweeping turns of S, there is a sense of boundlessness and a longing for the infinite.
At fourteen, Shakespeare’s Juliet grasped that a name was merely a handle, an artificial convention that no more defined the person bearing it than the word rose determined the beauty or fragrance of the flower it symbolized. Maybe I’m like the child who ventured beyond the confines of her bleak and desolate yard for the lofty heights of her neighbor’s swing set, isolated in its lush and acoustical surround, the greener grass on the other side of the fence. I might well be hiding under the outcrop of illusion: that all I long for and could be resides somewhere out there, beyond my inhibited-yet-expandable self. The one I could still nurture and develop were I less eager to leap at the sight and sound of something novel or seemingly better.
I wonder if a girl named Sarah might covet a nickname, wish to be coined in so endearing a way as to be hugged by a word, preserving for a lifetime the heyday of her power to turn heads and capture hearts despite the risk of feeling diminished. Or perhaps she might relish her sole and indisputable name, under the flag of which she could feel herself like a mainland nation, as opposed to a set of islands, a continuous entity rather than a discontinuous, isolated, or scattered one.
Yet no part of me could really be so naive as to think a certain “right” name, like the right spouse, child, house, or career, could unite the disowned and conflicting aspects of my psyche. Why is it, for instance, that when talking with someone by the name of Matt, which differs only slightly from Pat, albeit softer to the ear and more symmetrical to the eye, I never tire of the sound, or that I like the name Patrick and regard Pat as pleasing for a man yet not for a woman, particularly when that woman is me?
When I was a young child, my mother sat me in a dining room chair before she knelt to put on my shoes and socks. Often, my white cotton anklets were too big, so she’d yank on the front ends, stretching them, then fold the extra length under my toes. Afterward she’d slide my feet into my shoes so as to secure the socks in place, tie my laces, and briskly help me down from the chair.
The moment my feet hit the floor, feeling the mound of sock pressing into the undersides of my toes, the lack of contiguity between foot, sock, shoe, and floor, I began stomping my feet, angry tears damning up in the creeks of my eyes. Yet no matter how pronounced my discomfort, no matter how vehement my protest, my mother could offer no meaningful solution. Occasionally, she’d concede to untie the shoes and try to minimize the bulge, but in the end, socks that didn’t fit simply didn’t fit. One could get used to that. Except that I never did.
Beneath my ribs, my singed spirit writhed and contorted before twisting itself into a knot of misery. I was as locked inside my skin as were my socks inside my shoes. Nothing seemed to fit just right: not my skin, my clothes, my body, or my mind (certainly not my mind), and, before long, my name.
But what if I peeled back the old skin of shame and examined the irritants that frustrated and angered me as a child? Would I at last realize that whatever I lack now or was denied then doesn’t mean that I’m unduly flawed or have become a patsy? That I’m worthy of painting my life with bold and generous strokes, and that it’s not the world but I, myself, bound and determined to find me wanting?
Could my insistence that things look, sound, and feel just right be a clog in my own sensibility, a need for seamlessness that preserves my integrity because, like Aunt Sarah, part of my body was once torn away, compelling me to sweep, both literally and figuratively, around an absence I’m reluctant to name?
Consider again the name Patricia. How the soft C sound mimics that of S, the iambic melodiousness when the middle syllable crescendos like a steep rise in the road before resuming its former altitude—the S-curve escaping the bonds of flesh to sweep through the spirit and fill it with music. Patricia, soft and hard, reserved though outspoken, quiet yet exuberant, the name my mother gave me.
It was Patsy, though, that she called or, rather, sang to me at day’s end from her perch at the front door, holding the first syllable for four beats before swooping her voice down to hold the second for four more. There it was all along, the elusive, riotous letter S, in the midst of the name I tried to abandon, the sweetest sound my ear had known, flowing from that fluty, seesawing voice before trailing off like the coo of the mourning dove or a foam-frothed wave scrolling back to sea. My own name in its guises, the signature of a fate that no longer curtails me, the name I’m making for myself, a place I’m coming to recognize as home.