My Name Is Emily

What we call ourselves—and what others call us—can be both a burden and a gift

Photograph courtesy of author
Photograph courtesy of author

For Sandra

My name is Emily. Like every story that defines the course of a life, the story of my name began long before I was born. Emily was the name of my paternal grandmother. I never really knew her, though I can recall in precise detail the first time I met her. My father had taken my younger brother and me back to the country of his birth—the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago—so that we could be presented to his family, something many immigrants of his generation did. I was three years old. I remember my grandmother Emily as an old woman with deep-brown skin, dressed all in black, like a creature from another world, the Old World of my father’s childhood. And just like his childhood, my father’s mother was a mystery to me. Even to a three-year-old, she seemed fully contained, dense, full of secrets rich and deep, like a grave.

Taking this memory apart to examine and then describe it feels like pulling out a tattered toy from a creaky old trunk in a darkened attic, then blowing the dust off its crinkling, straw-filled body. It feels just like this when I try to remember my paternal grandmother—the sensation is so strong, so exact—even though I have never, in real life, lived in a house with the sort of attic I describe, and I have never owned a toy like the one that appears in my mind’s eye. I know that this feeling could easily have had its genesis in something I read once at an impressionable age—a scene from a Charles Dickens novel, for instance. Whenever I recall something that moves me powerfully, I wonder, Is this something that happened to me or something I merely read about once? I ask the question seemingly every day, and I almost never have a definite answer. This is how my memory works.

As I ascend into the attic of my memory, I am afraid. Fear courses through me with each step. Even as I pick the toy up, I am afraid to look at it, afraid that it will crumble.

My maternal grandfather was named Julius but called Snookums. I don’t know how he felt about his given name, if it was something he grew up wanting to shed, or even how he felt about his nickname, if it was something he treasured or resented, loved or hated.

No one who is alive remembers how “Snookums” came to be. It sounds like a name that his wife, my grandmother Dotsie, may have given him. Like Eva Peace in Toni Morrison’s Sula, my maternal grandmother functioned as a small deity in her world. Her genius for renaming loved ones is a direct reflection, in my eyes, of her uncanny ability to recognize who a person actually was—the private self inside a public identity. A given name—a government name, or legal name—is the face one shows to the world, a face that the wearer did not compose but instead inherited. A nickname represents the face one shows a beloved, whose job it is to mirror that face back in the shape of letters and sounds.

I have always been afraid to look at the toy, afraid to look at my father and his mysteries. As it turns out, there was a reason to be afraid: the toy was made of nothing. When I mentioned my memory to my older brother, that straw-filled toy disappeared before me; something solid turned out to be an apparition.

My older brother was outraged that I did not remember that our paternal grandmother lived with us for a year of our childhood, when he was five and I was three, at a time before our younger brother was born. So, went his point, there was no way that that scene could have taken place in Trinidad. It must have taken place in the States. How could I not remember? Probably, I said, because I was only three. He seemed to accept this explanation, but I could tell he didn’t want to. Instead, he wanted me to be sorry that my memory, porous as it apparently was, did not work like his.

Whether I remember it or not, Grandmother Emily did live with us in Atlanta during a year of my father’s medical residency. My brother instructed me to consult with our Trinidadian relatives if I didn’t believe him. But I did believe him.

Truth does not contradict experience, however, or even memory, particularly when memory shows up as pure sensation. I remember how cautiously I approached the old woman sitting on a chair, which, to my three-year-old self, resembled a throne. Does it matter if the throne was in Trinidad or Georgia? I’ve asked myself this many times, and I’ve decided that it does not.

I think what I experienced in that moment as a three-year-old girl was less a fear of the dark woman on the throne and more a fear of what was to come. She looked like the future, but not a future of fun, with birthday parties and amusement parks. It seems to me now that she represented a much harder future, the adult future, a female future—a destiny that lay scarily beyond even the terrifying precarities of everyday life (I was as fearful as a child as I would become as an adult), like the misted apex of a distant, spooky mountain.

I don’t remember what her voice sounded like. In my memory, she never spoke. She just was.

My father looked just like her.

I look just like my father, who named me after his mother. Do names create identity, or does an identity create a name? Is it possible to become one’s name, or is personality a consequence of other factors entirely?

On my paternal side, just as on my maternal side, the family legacy is formidable. The line is replete with engineers, educators, and business owners. Poets. Airline personnel. They were, and are, people who made things: buildings; futures; safe, pleasant experiences for human beings in transit.

Atop the pyramid of this family sits Emily Bernard the first—the OG. She is spoken about in reverential tones by her descendants. I am not the only Emily Bernard among those descendants. In fact, the original Emily Bernard was so towering, so potent, that it took two of us New World iterations to make up for one of her.

My father never called me out of my name, but when I misbehaved, he often called me into my name. Whether it came out in a bellow or a whisper, his Emily Bernard always conveyed one thing to me: his disappointment in whatever I was doing at the time, disappointment that I had failed to live up to his expectations and the example set by his sainted mother.

Like any other inheritance, a name is a gift and a burden. It is both the most precious of currencies and wholly immaterial. It is plain and perplexing. It’s a threat, a ticket, a promise, and a reminder. It is a knowable history as well as a wild, blind prediction. Security and chance. A gamble and a plan. Sacred and profane. The past and the future. A name is a nod to it all.

Grandmother Emily had Graves’ disease, a progressive illness that ultimately made it impossible for her to move easily in the world on her own. Graves’ disease attacks the thyroid. My father, the fifth and last child of a woman with an overactive thyroid, would grow up to marry a woman—my mother—who also had an overactive thyroid, which also compromised her ability to move freely in the world.

“In a sense sickness is a place,” wrote Flannery O’Connor, “more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow.” My father came to the United States from the southernmost island in the Caribbean; he also arrived on the shores of the American South from a place called sickness—his mother had been ill for all of his life. In this way, I understand him, because in this way, we come from the same place. My mother was sick for my whole life, too.

I directly contributed to the malaise that plagued my mother and brought her life to a premature end. My emergence from her body occasioned the collapse of one of her lungs. She had breathing problems ever after. She would eventually die from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. I shudder as I write these lines, feeling like a criminal, just as I do every time I force myself to remember what I did to my mother. The apparently heartless way in which I charged out of her body and into the world is something for which I have never forgiven myself, though she never blamed me, and if she were alive and reading these lines, she would roll her eyes at my confession of eternal guilt, accuse me of being dramatic again.

It is true that I am dramatic, just as it is true that I am my parents’ daughter, and the namesake of Emily Bernard.

The cruelty of immigration—which, whether elected or forced, is always a form of displacement—is that often one loses one’s name. Sometimes this loss is a result of a practical, dispassionate choice a person makes to fit into a new world. But being nameless is like being homeless. A name is a map, a link to the past as much as it is a claim on the future.

My mother’s move from the old world of the Deep South (Hazlehurst, Mississippi) to the new world of the New South—which Nashville considered itself a part of when I was growing up—required as great a sacrifice as did my father’s journey across the Caribbean. Much was gained by my mother, but much was also lost. When she enrolled as an undergraduate at Fisk University, for instance, she was no longer known by the embarrassing nickname of her childhood (Moochie). As a co-ed, she was Clara—brainy, beautiful, and ambitious. A star who relentlessly dazzled her strict, demanding professors with her insights and work ethic, my mother captivated a campus with her glamour and talent. Some 400 miles north of where she had been born, my mother was born again. She left her parents and their troubled marriage behind. She vexed her father by slipping the straitjacket of his ambitions for her. She shed his surname and took on someone else’s.

To the members of my mother’s Mississippi family, I was always foreign. I knew this even as a child. I could see it in their eyes, and I could hear it in the way they said my name, Emily, as if it were something they didn’t quite believe, like I was but a player in my mother’s elaborate act of self-reinvention. I adored and revered my mother’s mother, Dotsie, just like everyone else who knew her, even my mother, who resented her as much as she loved her. This complex stew of emotions perhaps represents what many daughters feel about their mothers; it’s certainly how my teenage daughters must feel about me. I sensed that I knew my grandmother through my mother’s stories alone, but we never really knew each other. Or rather, though I felt I knew her, I doubt she ever believed she knew me. My evidence for this supposition is that I knew and held in my mind many names for my grandmother (all of them used by family and friends), whereas she had only one for me: Emily. She didn’t know me well enough to give me a nickname, as she had done for so many of her other beloveds.

People I call intimates call me Em.

The moment someone uses a nickname for you without your offering it first— a name that was honed and shaped for you throughout your childhood to punish, tease, celebrate, and mock you—you feel seen. You may feel exposed. You may ask, How did you know? You might suddenly believe in the collective unconscious, and feel you have a role in it. You believe in magic and mind reading. You realize that you are both real and a fraud. You understand that however seriously you try to compose an adult face to present to the world, your real face, your childhood face, may nevertheless slip through, or at least be visible to those who choose to look at you in a particular way.

I knew a woman in a professional capacity whom I liked very much. I had every reason to believe that she liked me too. We got into the rhythm of speaking often; we also exchanged emails and texts. Our conversations were consistent, fun, and productive. The more we communicated, the more we liked each other. But when she addressed me as Em one day, I knew we had arrived at a new plateau. On that day, I knew she loved me. (I already knew I loved her and had come up with several pet names for her, none of which I asked permission to use, and all of which I used freely and at will). I knew she saw me—the face behind my professional face. I relaxed, let out a breath. The jig was up. I felt at home.

The other Emily Bernard of my generation is a cousin, a daughter of the OG’s oldest son. My cousin is a woman who moves and speaks with grace and precision. You don’t want to mess with her. She is beautiful. Like other members of her family, she has music and poetry in her language and gait. Her sister was a better daughter to my mother, in my mother’s later years, than I was, and for this I will remain forever indebted.

I grew up idolizing these sisters, as well as their sisters, whom I do not know as well. If you do not know the exceptional beauty of Trinidadian women, then you have never met any Trinidadian women. As a teenager, I felt like a pale American imitation of these women, a half-breed. But the older I get, the more I resemble my father, and the more I believe that they see themselves in me, and me in them. I’ve grown up. I’ve grown into my name.

A name is a country. Bernard is Trinidad, my father, and me; the kingdom and the colony; Prospero and Caliban.

Dear Prospero:
You shouldn’t have taught me language.
You taught me how to use it against you.

Deeper than Em is Em-Em. This is the name that lives in the marrow of my bones, far beneath the layers formed by my heavy glasses and postgraduate degrees. It is the name of the lazy, dreaming child who, at heart, I always am, and will remain to the day of my death.

Em-Em is the name my father used when he was happy with me. I heard it exponentially more often as an adult than I did as a kid. I grew from a lazy but also willful child into an obedient if also willful young adult who found meaning in the path of ambitions laid out for me by my mother and father. These were ambitions on which my parents agreed when agreement between them was rare.

Em-Em is a child’s name, but ironically it is the name my father used most often when I became, like him, a professional in the world. “You will become a professor,” my father decreed when I told him, at the age of 12, how much I wanted to become a teacher. I enjoyed defying him in some ways, but in this matter, I acquiesced without much debate. It pleased him. And that pleased me. It pleases me still.

Em-Em was the name of his delight, and it delighted me, even when I was angry at him and, I am sure, appeared cold. His Em-Em warmed me, like the name I called him back when I loved him purely, without equivocation or caveat. That name was Daddy.

I miss you, Daddy. I will miss you for the rest of my life.

When I think of Emily, I think of M&Ms (a name I am also sometimes called), clementines, marshmallows, marmalade, and other confections. It might be nice to play a role in the lives of those I love similar to that of a confection in human form. But when I bring treats to my beloveds for no reason, they often wonder what I want from them in exchange. Why? ask their eyes. It’s just my name, I want to say. I’m just being an Emily.

“Be sweet,” my mother would often tenderly cajole me when I was in high school and left the house wearing the face of an asshole teenager. She would use a singsong voice to underscore the gravity of her warning (like my father, she was a fan of irony). Words are containers of sound as much as they are containers of meaning. Be sweet, went my mother’s southern song, which was full of invented rhythms and elongated vowels. She was warning me of the dangers out there for women who refused to make pleasing others their responsibility, as well as the inevitability of that mandate in a woman’s life.

Sorry, Mom. I’m trying, but I’m finally figuring out that sweet isn’t always a safe way for a woman to be, even if her name is Emily. Still, I can’t seem to stop myself from bringing chocolates at holiday seasons to the overworked employees at my local post office.

A name is a story that everyone can tell. It is a declaration of the self, and it can change over time, just like the origin stories that occasioned it. A name is a container of what we know about ourselves and the generational alchemy of the loving hopes, fears, and plans of others that ushered us into existence. As a container, a name is infinitely capacious and sturdy, but also delicate and flimsy. It all depends on the way you say it. I teach my daughters that it isn’t their duty to please others, but to tell others—especially people they love—how to say their names.

To pronounce your name is to tell a story, a family story. When you write about your loved ones, they may rebel, accuse you of having a porous memory. They may even accuse you of lying. But we get to say our names, and our loved ones ought to love us back by pronouncing them the way we want them to, by saying our names the way they sound to us.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Emily Bernard is the author of Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine, winner of the Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose, and Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White. She is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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