The power of a name

Now I bet each one of you receives junk mail most days of the week —  mail that’s addressed to ‘Occupant’ or ‘To Whom It May Concern’.  That kind of mail isn’t likely to get my attention. However, if my name’s on it, I’ll read it.

You see, there’s power in a name. Once you learn my name and I learn yours, we have a claim on each other we didn’t have before. We’re no longer strangers.

When Maya Lin was only 21 years old, and still a senior at Yale University’s School of Architecture, she won a national competition to design the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D. C. I’ve seen it and I’m sure a lot of you have, too. In a TV interview Maya Lin explained why her design has strong emotional appeal: “As you descend the path along the wall, streets and skylines disappear, to leave you alone with the wall and its names. The name of the first soldier who died is carved at the angle in the wall, and the names continue to the right in columns, in chronological order of date of death, out to the East End where the wall fades into the earth. The names begin again with the next soldier who died, at the west end where the wall emerges from the earth….”

I think Maya Lin’s sculpture is powerful, especially in this digital age when our name is not always used and our world becomes impersonal. And we wonder if anyone cares to know us as a person.

A few years ago, we hosted my distant cousin, Muriel, and her husband, Mike, who live in England. During the Second World War Muriel’s brother Russell was evacuated to Brampton, to live in my grandmother’s house. But the boat that Russell came on was the last one to get across the Atlantic safely.  The next boats were torpedoed, and that’s the reason Muriel and the rest of her family stayed behind in England.

When Muriel and Mike were staying with us I decided to take them to Brampton – the place of my earliest childhood memories. I found myself scouring the town for the places I remembered from my childhood that would also be interesting for Muriel to see.  On the last stop, I took them to the cemetery where all my mother’s family are buried.  What a fabulous opportunity it was for me, to connect myself to my place in our family history, and in the river of time. Though I was born several years after my grandfather Hewetson died, there was his name, in large letters, carved on the tombstone.

The longer I live the more important names have become for me. For when you learn my name and I learn yours, we’re no longer strangers.


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