Our mothers’ names

“How simple a thing it seems to me that to know ourselves as we are, we must know our mothers’ names.” Alice Walker

I was on the phone recently with one of my best friends who was headed to a family wedding, and our conversation shifted to talking about her aunts, uncles, and cousins who would be there.  I asked her what her grandmothers’ names had been, surprised that I didn’t know.  We talked about the names of the generations of women who walked before us, enacting, I suppose, the very thing that Virginia Woolf asserts: “We think back through our mothers, if we are women.”

And after we hung up I floated on a sea of names, whose waters swirl with women I know intimately, some of whom are now gone, and with women I never had the chance to meet.  Among all of these women, including myself and Grace, there ripples a cord of connection and commonality that is almost as difficult to articulate as it is impossible to deny.

Susan, Priscilla, Janet, Marion, Marion, Elsie, Eleanor

These are the names of where I come from, the names of my root system, the names of the women whose very blood beats in my veins.  They stand sentinel at my mother’s gardens, in search of which I found my own (Alice Walker).  I thought of Julie’s beautiful post about this, which I looked for after I’d started this post, and which opened with the very same lines (goosebumps).

Susan, Priscilla, Janet, Marion, Marion, Elsie, Eleanor.
And also: Grace.

What are the names you come from?

30 thoughts on “Our mothers’ names”

  1. Oh, beautiful thought.

    Carrie, Ethel, Lois Elnina, Edna, Gladys, Inez, Ina, and Pauline whose middle name was Louise.

    Like me.

  2. I am Stacy
    Daughter of Sharon
    Granddaughter of Anna and Pauline Lily
    Great granddaughter of Lillie Snow and Bessie
    And if my sweet little boy had been a girl, she would have been my Wiley (my mother’s maiden name).
    Thanks for this rumination. Especially lovely for me as the anniversary of my mother’s death approaches….

  3. Sharon, Evelyn, Carol, Madge, Ada, Mary – my mother, grandmothers and great-grandmothers. And also my aunts: Charlene, Judy, Barbara, and Catherine, called Cathy (where my name comes from – though I’m Katherine with a K, called Katie).

  4. This makes me realize – weird that I didn’t as I wrote the piece – that I don’t have any aunts. Well, by marriage, and one of them is dear, dear, dear to me. But I don’t have any other women in my bloodline in my mother’s generation. I do have my beloved sister, Hilary. Her name belongs in this too.

  5. Neither of my parents had sisters, and the siblings of my grandparents had all died by the time I was born, so I have a dearth of female relatives, but I loved them all deeply: Mabel Rose (my mom was named after both of her grandmothers), Alpha, and Bernice.

    I love that you quote Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. After I read it, I went to the shelf to pick up my dog-eared copy. It opened to the page of her essay, “A Writer Because Of, Not in Spite of, Her Children.”

    I remember laughing out loud when Alice quoted the writer (Buchi Emecheta) who dedicated her book “To my dear children..without whose sweet background noises this book would not have been written.” and said, “What kind of woman would think the “background noises” of *five* children “sweet”?

    Well, maybe not *always* sweet, but I know, for sure, that those background noises are the catalyst for writing – from you and Katrina Kenison (just to name two!!) – I admire most.

  6. Mary Anne, Rose, Ida, Ann, and sisters Allison Marie, Christina Marie, and Victoria Rose. This post makes me recall how I obsessed over names for my daughters! To the first I gave the middle name “Rose”, the middle name of both my baby sister and my husband’s mother, and the first name of both my and my husband’s maternal grandmothers. My second daughter is named not after one of the women in our families, but rather she takes the name shared by a Holy Roman Empress and later a British queen — Adelaide. I laugh as I write that! But I wanted something strong, and rooted in history, and Adelaide means nobility and kindness. Her middle name (Sage) means “wise” in Latin, as her older sister’s first name (Sophia) means “wisdom” in Greek. My name is Greek for “honey-bee”, which I didn’t know until I began dating my husband, whose love-affair with the Greek language you well know. So we chose a Greek name for our first daughter. Now you have me thinking about what this means — for my first daughter, I chose names that connected her to me and our families. But for my second girl, I deliberately picked names unconstrained, guided only by my wishes for her. Perhaps that was an act of independence on my part…I wonder…xo

  7. So prickly for me to navigate, but a necessary travail. My mother is mentally ill – destructively so – and several years ago I had to sever all contact with her for the sake of my own emotional and mental health, as well as that of my family. She is an anti-mother figure for me, and my life is structured and guided by the desire to ensure I am nothing like her, and that what has befallen her does not befall me. I have not figured out what is chemical in my mother, and what is by choice – I believe it is a combination of the two. I know that the propensities that exist in my mother, exist in me.

    Now that I have a daughter of my own, almost-five-month-old Brooke, I feel all the more responsible for giving Brooke all of the tools, support, resources, self-awareness, you name it, to revel in being a woman. The alpha and the omega being, of course, her relationships with other women.

    And so…

    Eva, Aja, Marie Louise, Anne, Birgitta, Barbro, Nina, Agneta, Jessica, Dutta, Phoebe, Barbara, Jeanne, Katherine, Lisa (Elizabeth), Liz (Elizabeth), Caitlyn. And my sweet joy, Brooke.

  8. Love this, but it makes my heart ache. As of now, the line of women ends with me.

    Effie, Carol, Dorothy, Eleanor, Nancy, Johnnie (my grandfather wanted a boy, and so my aunt was named a boy’s name). There was also a Mildred and an Evelyn and a Mary too in my circle of great aunts.

    My grandmother and my aunt share my middle name — Eileen.

  9. This is so great. And the photo? Yowza. Pretty cool. Both of my grandmothers died before I was 5 so I don’t have many memories or connections like this. I wish I did.

  10. I love your blog generally and this post struck a particular chord. My mom passed away recently and my siblings and I debate the proper spelling of her middle name. I am Anne Dorothy, after my grandmother Dorothy Beatrice and my mother, Dorothy Ann — or is it Anne. I remember clearly her telling me our “Ann”s were spelled differently. But her driver’s license says Anne; so does her high school yearbook. Her nursing yearbook says Ann and so does a family tree she made for me. I’m so sad that I can’t ask her which spelling is right.

  11. I love this, Lindsey. And I realize that I’m feeling it on an even deeper level now that I am the mother of a girl. When my daughter was born and I called my mom (at my house taking care of my boys), she said to me, “I’m so glad you’ll have the chance to be a mother to a daughter.” I’ll always remember that.

    I’m from Joyce, Clarice, Catherine, Stephanie, Joan, and Laura.

  12. I am Julie, daughter of Joan, granddaughter of Polly, great-granddaughter of Clarissa, GG-daughter of Charlotte, mother of Jacqueline and Jennifer, and grandmother of Aveline.

    What an amazing thing it is to know this lineage of women…

    Thank you, Lindsey.

  13. i remember julie’s post, and i don’t think we can ever proclaim too often our rich female lineage. I am jeanne, daughter of Ada, Granddaughter of Katie Belle and Monte, Great Granddaughter of Missouri Ann and Ever Lelia; Great Great Granddaughter of Priscilla and Sena; niece of Joyce; Mother of Alison. Thank you, Lindsey. You turned my day around and inspired a post. xo

  14. Alice, Cynthia, Ann, Sarah, Rosemary…
    Thank you for this exercise. I’ve realized I don’t know enough. I need to go call my mom.

  15. You are not alone in this, Anne… I’ve been hesitating all day to add to these comments. I think I will now. Thanks…

    And my daughter, who just turned 18? The best and most healing gift of all.

  16. I hesitated to join in, as I severed these ties – or some of them – over a dozen years ago, but still … It’s about where we came from, right?

    So, I am from Linda, Delina and Helen – and Mabel, Violet, Frances, Dorothy, Elaine, Helen and Carol. And my Alexandra.

    I love that photo, too. Thanks, Lindsey.

  17. This reminds me of a section in Maxine Hong Kingston’s THE WOMAN WARRIOR: the narrator’s mother, Brave Orchid, is away at school in China when she falls ill. Her fellow students (all women) worry that her spirit has fled; to call it back to her they must chant all of her names and nicknames. But they worry because they don’t know her whole name history — so they can only call out “horizontal names of one generation.”

    Mary Olivia and Claire (my daughters); Mary Elizabeth; Marianne; Mary Kathryn; Wynona Louise; Hattie Belle; Claire Priscilla; Nannie Mae.

  18. I simply had to reply to your post. I appreciate your candor and humor. We did the same as you in naming our second child, a daughter. I wanted to give her a strong and independent name to guide her. Her name is Brooke Cordelia – neither are strict family names. Brooke is after a spiritual sister and mentor for me on the practicalities of life who came to me nearly 15 years ago and changed me irrevocably. Cordelia is after the youngest daughter of King Lear, who spoke what she felt, not what she ought to say.

    There is a separate list for me, of names of women I am inspired by, who have been mothers, mentors, and models for me in ways my mother could never be.

  19. Oh, I hope you will share this list – it makes me think of all the women who would be on such a list for me. xo

  20. I am the daughter of Marilou, niece of Susan, granddaughter of Lois, Dorethy and Marjorie. Sister to Christine. I have no daughters only boys and I find it interesting that when I think of who I’m from, the men come to mind before the women – all my boys have representations of their male heritage – Josepeh, Kenneth, Michael are their middle names.

  21. Lovely (as usual). I love this, and taking a note from others above:

    I am Alisa, daughter of Katharine Bess, grand-daughter of both Mary Patricia and Mary Emma Lucile, great-grandaughter of Bessie George and Mary Brown.

    Lots of Marys, I never noticed!

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