My first day of first grade in grammar school was momentous, truly great and worthy of entry into the anecdote hall of fame, if there was one. I’ve recently shared a childhood story, which I was asked to repeat a few times about my name. Our our names are pretty much the most important thing we bring to school and share with others. Mine was too long for a first grader or so I thought. This has perhaps propelled me to reduce my name to Cris over time, or maybe it was programming and web design that made the longer version take too much of my time. To be honest names never meant that much to me, I am still stunned when the barista asked if it’s Cris with a C or Cris with a K. I usually say it doesn’t matter, then rarely like or accept this response. If they insist on placing this between me an dry coffee, I’ll say “Cris with a C but no H.” That’s even worse, the frustrated response I get often sets my mind off on a variety of scenarios often involving cozy coffeehouse murders or at least a kidnapping. A prison classroom setting in the renovated basement of a nearby home. The rows of desks full of kidnapped baristas forced to write over and over ‘Cris with a C and no H but it really doesn’t matter and never did’. But, back to my story, the wonderful day, the day I was elevated, self-elevated to deity level in ankle socks.
First a bit of background, I was raised Catholic and in the old, pre-ecumenical days of the church. That means the mass was in Latin, the priest faced the altar with his back to you and he was busy doing things you couldn’t see that appeared very serious and mystical. As a kid, I loved it. Latin was musical and you couldn’t see what the priest was up to at the altar, so when he turned around with a chalice of holy hosts, it was the best magic show in town. I am not trying to be funny here, I absolutely loved being a Catholic. As a child, I was so excited by the church, I questioned everything. I was often sent to the priest when my questions were too much for Mother Superior. I was a happy camper. Unlike many other lapsed and former Catholics I meet, I harbor no vindictive feelings towards the nuns or the church. The abuse in my life was at home –the nuns and priests actively protected me on many occasions. I trusted them and felt comfortable in their company.
This was who I was when I entered first grade at Saint Francis of Assisi. Our class was held in the basement of the Church, which the Sister liked to point out was as close to God as it got or as was later remarked was actually closer to hell.
I remember a lot from that day and the next morning because I was just so happy to be there. Also, it was a special day for our teacher. As she called out the role, we eagerly looked around studied each other. I noticed some kids had shorter versions of their names, which we were told were nicknames. I found this fascinating. I was a Christine Desrosiers -already a mouthful at any age. But Timothy was Tim, Michael was Mikey and Cynthia was Cindy… etc, etc. I immediately and correctly decided I was in dire need of a nickname.
The next morning was the second day and as with many things the second time always feels comfortable, everything is familiar and you know the ropes. The first thing the sister did was to call me up to her desk. She showed me a sheaf of papers, they were all mine from the day before. She asked if they were mine or whether we’d had a special visitor that day. I proudly told her that they were indeed mine and that was my new nickname! And without missing a beat, the Sister took her pencil and erased the last letter.
“Oh, my dear, this name is already taken, but look what I’m doing, we’ll just erase the ‘t’ and you can be Chris from now on, this is your new nickname!” It wasn’t until much later, I understood that whatever else I was or would be, there was a time long ago, when I was Christ for a day.
As a writer, one of the most frustrating tasks we encounter is naming our characters. I’ve seen many people over the years agonize, fight, cry and rant over choosing a baby’s name. Even a puppy or kitten has to be named carefully. The power of a name -in Genesis when all creatures were named was a big deal.
Granted there has always been a Cris-part of my brain that wanted to argue the logic of her decision but I wisely keep quiet, since for me that wasn’t the point. When I later learned that Jesus was a popular hispanic name, I ruefully remembered. Now, as a writer, names have regained their power, sometimes for me, it seems, the power is to confound and torture.
Right now, let me interrupt and give some hard-learned advice. I highly recommend writers choose the name ‘Bill’ only after careful deliberation. And if you do choose the name Bill, be forewarned that when you later try to change it DO NOT use ‘find and replace’ or spend the rest of your life living with a character’s reaction to finding yet another mailbox full of Jacks and sales flyers. Ducks will peck at pieces of bread in the water with their yellow Dicks. Your feisty millennial will look like a fool ranting about the legislature’s failure to pass a politically vital Peter. And when a nut runs for president whose claim to fame is his questionable status as a Timionaire -well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.