I sat and stared, listening to my mouth continuing about its business. With a curious, detached prescience, I was acutely aware that my words were about to run out. I needed his name. Needed to end my speech with it. I knew that I knew it. But could I recall it?
I was exhausted, I ached, I’d driven for hours on little sleep… all good reasons. Even so, the blank spot was curious. A ‘senior moment’?
It would have been bad enough were I speaking to a new acquaintance; I am notoriously bad with names in person, though I never forget faces. I pass people in the street, folk I met years ago, and remember them. I can remember the circumstances… even if I only met them briefly in the line of business, but names escape me.
Oddly, though, the people I meet mostly online, I remember by name. It is that first point of contact that seems to matter…that fixes them in memory. My memory seems to prefer to work visually, which probably explains why I take so many pictures. Someone I meet in person will be remembered by their face, but a blogger, for example, will be known, first and foremost, by the name I see on screen, and by the picture they use for their online presence.
Once I get to know a person, though, I don’t forget. Except, apparently, I do. The person I was speaking to was more than a chance acquaintance… it was someone very close to me, someone I love. One of the handful of people at the heart of my world. And he was suddenly nameless.
I seemed to see a thousand lifetimes where our paths had crossed or met, each bearing different names. I listed them in my mind, knowing I would forget them instantly, wishing I could remember them to talk about it later. But the one name I needed eluded me.
While my mouth was busy, I started mentally retracing the steps of our relationship, visualising events, until I found his name ‘written down’ in my imagination. It took no more than a split second, from panic to recall, though the blank spaces felt like eternity.
I could not possibly have said, “What was your name again?” to someone I have known for years! He would either have been mortally wounded, or (more likely) I would never have lived it down having afforded him untold amusement. Anyone a little less close might have been seriously offended… because it matters that people remember our names.
That was what struck me. We label ourselves and our self-image with variations on our name, from the formal names and titles we use in the workplace, to the diminutives, derivatives and roles used by our nearest and dearest. Our names are the one thing we offer unreservedly to the world… and, once given, we expect the world to catch them and retain a good hold. We define them for ourselves… and then allow them to define us.
I wonder why they matter so much? We speak of someone ‘having a good name’ or ‘getting a bad name’, we attach importance to our lineage and, historically, preserving the ‘family name’. Sons who would carry that name forward were prized when daughters who would change their name were not. It is an odd idea.
I have, and have borne, many names, nicknames and ‘titles’ throughout my life. Oddly, the only names that are unchangeably mine … my full forenames… are never used, except when I am in trouble or coming round from anaesthesia, which is pretty much the same thing.
The names that have always mattered most to me have been short, foreign or not really names at all. The three letters of ‘Sue’ and ‘Mum’, the French version that always came with Leonard Cohen quotes, ‘Grandma’, the hobbit references and the occasional ‘Wendolina’… these are truly ‘given’ names and mean far more to me than their official counterparts, for they were given with love.