Saturday, April 29, 2006


I’ve always sneered at those women who marry and stubbornly keep their own names. My thoughts being that a) they are stubborn wenches b) they are not completely committed to their husbands, and c) they are not mindful of an accommodating husband who reluctantly agreed to this, but at the same time harbors a concealed sadness because of it. But today, I’m thinking a bit different about women giving up a maiden name.

I’m currently in the reflective stage of my life and in this reflection every other day I think about a handful of fun-loving girlfriends that were once so important to me. Witty, giggly, silly friends. Friends whose love and companionship brought nothing less than sheer joy to every moment that I spent in their company.

But people move and when that happens our lives become separated contextually and geographically. We all too easily lose touch. It’s not just because of the separation. It’s also because we are just too busy with career, life, parenting, competing, to dedicate time to that which no longer forms part of our daily world.

But they remain in our thoughts – those old friends. More often than they or even we realize. And when that thought is there, don’t we all say, “I must look her up sometime.” And we make our feeble efforts to do so, but it is so impossible because that one thing that would allow us to easily track them is lost. They have given away their birth name.

And so today’s rant is about such a thing. That wonderful friend I had when fourteen. Carmen, with the laughing violet-colored eyes and the long flowing chestnut hair. Carmen, who understood and supported my every disappointment, my every hope, my every dream.

Nothing was as much fun as spending time in Carmen’s company. But such joy was infrequent. We attended different schools and she lived some distance from us. I came from a poor family, but Carmen came from a totally destitute one.

And then, one summer, a very special thing happened. An opportunity came for me to spend a day at Carmen’s place. To spend a whole day in each other’s company. She invited me and I was thrilled to pieces. She warned me that she had a humble home but, so what? So did I. She expressed a great deal of concern about that part of it but I assured her again and again that it would make no difference to me if she lived in a tent.

And so, the day came, and I went to Carmen’s house. Her home was indeed dire. An ancient tumbledown shack. The inside was dreary, dark, with few windows. The raw wood of the floors and walls darkened by the effluent of backed-up wood fires in the old wood heater. The furniture was sparse and most of it staggered against the walls as if in acts of desperation to remain upright. The chairs at the old kitchen table had no backs – only splintered remains of where backs had once been. They were wired and cross-wired underneath to keep feeble legs from folding. I noticed the screen door was badly ripped and chickens and goats meandered in and out as casually as if this was their primary home.

I began for just a moment to think I couldn’t deal with this. I had only just arrived and already a great old lump of homesickness was beginning to swell in my chest. And when homesickness imbeds itself in my body, it is like dealing with a combo of green-gilled seasickness and a blazing migraine all at once. It was difficult to keep at bay, but I fought it with all my strength. After all, I had made a promise to Carmen that none of this would matter. So I closed my mind, shut down my brain, and let it all go.

As we crossed the room, Carmen shooed a chicken aside and took me through the dreary front room to the back of the house. Here we stooped to go through a short doorway built as crudely as an old field gate. I wouldn’t have been amazed but the contrast between that room and the front room was sufficient that I was amazed. Though the paper on the walls was building paper or perhaps brown paper that was cracked and peeling and pasted over rough boards, it was painted a rosy pink. Colorful pictures from magazines were pinned to the walls. The bed was neatly made, although the quilt cover was so old and worn it was transparent as cheesecloth. And on the board floor by the bed was a tattered piece of green lino that was too short, too narrow, but with the pink walls, it lent an appreciable homeyness to the room. The dresser in the corner had the support of two adjacent walls and so it looked only half as desperate as the furniture in the front room. I could tell that someone had taken extreme effort to make the room as neat and tidy as possible.

We lounged on the bed that day and talked about boys, and clothes, and school, and dreams, and time flew past. We thumbed through a catalogue and imagined being that lovely, that stylish. I can’t recall a better time, a better day. Later that afternoon, Carmen said, “You must be hungry.” She tossed a pile of old magazines my direction and said, “Here’s something to amuse you. Wait here while I fix us something to eat.”

A bit later she came back with two bruised plates, two rippled forks, and a cooking pot. She held the cooking pot out toward me and said, “Just look in here. Do you know what I forgot to add?”

I looked in the pot. It was macaroni. Just macaroni. Boiled macaroni.

“The cheese, of course!” I said loudly with a laugh.
“No,” she said quietly. “You’re wrong. It’s not the cheese. Wait and I will add what I forgot.”

The violet eyes twinkled for a moment in her sober face. "But it sounds like 'cheese'."

It was a riddle I couldn't answer.

Carmen left the room then and returned shortly with the macaroni. She had added a can of peas to it. My heart went out to her. I felt I had wounded her with my expectation of cheese. I felt saddened and sobered.

And so, while I choked down a second plate of bland macaroni with chalky peas, I realized something. If I were the Queen of England, I would still not have been such an honored guest as I was that day. This dear friend of mine trusted me enough to take me into her total confidence. To allow me to cross her threshold (a threshold I’m not sure that anyone else in this world had ever crossed, except members of her own clan). To let me see and be a part of her most intimate and private place. It was indeed a self-deprecating act, but that was Carmen. She trusted my loyalty enough to expose even those parts of her life to me that everyone else in this world would prefer to hide. But still, my heart ached for her. She was such a special friend who deserved so much more.

I can’t fault Carmen for what happened next. She ran away from home. I could understand that she had too many hopes and dreams that could never be realized in such a sad situation. I lost touch with her. Not too worried though because she had numerous relatives in the old hometown. I was pretty certain I could find her through a relative whenever I felt a need to.

Over the next ten years or so, I frequently thought of Carmen. Always with a smile seasoned with a painful bit of desolation. Eventually when my own kids were in grade school, I began my attempts to track her down.

How often we say, “It’s such a small world” and with Carmen, I kept thinking that that accidental meeting would soon happen as it so surprisingly has with so many casual acquaintances I never expected to ever see again. Every time I leave home, whether my trip be far or near, inevitably somewhere along the way I encounter someone I once knew. So I had an unshakable confidence that I would eventually meet her in a shopping mall, in a restaurant, on the street, or at a bus terminal, airport, or train station. But it never happened.

And so now I began phoning and interrogating those with the same name that lived in the old town. These were younger members of the clan. But always I got the same story. She might be a distant cousin. They didn’t know. They never heard of her. And so none knew where she was. It was as if she had never existed. How could someone so special, so dear, so sweet, kind, and generous, be so completely removed from other’s memory, knowledge, or interest, even that of those that I was quite certain were members of the same clan? The best I managed was somewhere along the way I secured a married name but it was an unusual name that no one knew how to spell. I tried all combinations of that name in phone directories but I came up empty handed. I thought of posting an ad in a newspaper but thought that too extreme. Perhaps something she might not appreciate dependent on her situation.

And then yesterday, Hub was at work and I was forced to make the dreaded trip to town to collect the mail and restock the pantry. And when I went to the post office, that encounter that I had so long awaited finally happened. It was not an encounter with her but it had the information I so long had sought. There right in front of my nose was a carefully written note. It had Carmen’s first name, maiden name, and the correct spelling that I had never managed of her married name. Her address was there too. On a little white card taped to the post office door. But the home address was not a resident address. It was a Funeral Home in a distant city.

I am sad today. Very sad. How different this story might be if Carmen had been one of those stubborn wenches who refused to give up her own name and identity to a husband and perhaps, also, if I had done the same.

I thought of Carmen fondly so many times. I truly have missed her over the years although one would think that sadness would have long ago dispersed. But today I find out that I didn’t miss her half so much as I do this very moment. I think when Carmen invited me to her house, she believed that I would always honor her by keeping silent about her humble situation. And I have until today. I think today I honor her by telling it. I hope that is true.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, Roberta. I'm so sorry that you've lost your friend. I have a friend from college that I have been meaning to contact, and your experience reminds me not to put it off.

I was going to be one of those hussies who kept her maiden name, the second time I married. It had been difficult to re-establish my name when I had been divorced, and I wanted to be identified as my father's child. But, my mother was living with us, and she seemed so uneasy about my not taking Dear Husband's name, that I caved. I'm not sorry, but your story points out to me that I may have cut myself off from childhood and college friends. I may need to touch base, so that some of them know where to find me.

Carmen will live on in your words and memories, and now in our minds as well.


9:44 PM  
Anonymous Scotia (Aurora) said...

When I began reading, I figured I'd explain my own reasoning for believing women should not have to change their surnames when they marry, but by the time I got to the end of the story... well, right now, actually... I'm fighting a little lump in my throat and my eyes are damp. It seems so trivial, the name thing, when that nugget of sadness is so much more present.

I'm so very sorry to hear you were never able to make contact with Carmen again. One can only hope she was able to realize some of her dreams before her time on this earth was done. I bet she thought of you, too, quite a bit over the years.

3:04 AM  
Blogger Roberta said...

Buffy and scotia, You are both so precious. It is comforting to think, as scotia suggested, that Carmen realized some of her dreams. And it is comforting to think, as Buffy suggested, that she will live on in other minds.

As to the debate about whether or not to drop one's maiden name? It remains an interesting discussion.

3:30 PM  
Blogger Busy Mom said...

I don't say this enough (or comment enough), but, you are an amazing writer.

1:25 PM  
Blogger Roberta said...

busy mom, that is an accolade of gigantic proportion in my mind. I see you as a blogging professional who can so easily grab a simple thought or event and with so few words create meat to ponder or a warm inward-chuckling smile that will last an entire day. I envy you for that special talent. Meanwhile, I rant on and on and on...

2:43 PM  
Anonymous Esther said...

That story really touched me. It makes me wonder how Carman spent her life, is there anyway to find out? I'm sure there is a great story there. I saw "Capote" the movie the other day about Truman Capote and Harper Lee (of "To Kill A Mockingbird" and how he came to write, "In Cold Blood" and it was absolutely spellbinding. It made me want to be a writer. This story makes me want to do that, too.

12:47 PM  
Blogger Roberta said...

Thank you esther for comments that are as touching to me as the story was to you.

2:11 PM  
Anonymous joared said...

I have no problem with whatever name others choose to use. I just would hope the issue would be resolved with their husband-to-be before the marriage.

Of course, they have to think about any legal implications, complications for any children, which could alter their choices. Who cares what others think.

What trust and affection your friend must have had for you. I would expect the warmth of that memory of you was with her always.

Your beautifully written story is, indeed, a real tribute that honors your friend's memory.

2:03 AM  
Blogger Roberta said...

joared, it's great to see you. Thank you for reading my story and for the prompting of other thoughts to consider when it comes to chaning names.

9:03 AM  

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