Namesake


Last night, on the eve of the 10-year anniversary of Nanny's passing, my daughter recognized her name for the first time.

We were lying in bed, and I was trying to feed her, but lately, as she's become more aware of the world, that world fascinates her endlessly. She turns from my breast to watch evening shadows lengthen on the wall. The click of the fan draws her eye, makes her smile. She glances toward the bathroom, where a light shines. She remembers the new delight of her feet, pulling them to her chest with both hands and clapping them together. A fifteen-minute feed can take forty minutes to achieve these days, and I was tired. We'd driven two and a half hours from San Antonio to Laredo, and navigated a gas station stop where four pumps didn't work before one did, I'd had to pee with her wrapped in her baby carrier, and the loud gush of flushing toilets had scared her each time. I was hungry. I could feel this anniversary looming, heavy in my chest.

"Baby," I said. "Come on. Over here." I angled myself toward her, up on an elbow, neck aching. "Bubba. Come on. Finish eating." She didn't look at me. The shadows held her gaze. Finally: "Josefine."

Instantly, she turned toward me, her wide almond eyes bright on mine. She grinned. My mouth fell open. "Do you--did you--do you know your name?" To experiment, I let her turn away from me again and repeated all my usual cajoling. Making sure my tone didn't change, I said her name. Again, immediately, unmistakably, she whipped her head around to stare at me, beaming.

I couldn't help crying, thinking that tonight, of all nights, she recognized the name I'd given to her because I couldn't give her the woman herself.

When I was pregnant and still believed I was having a boy, I combed through lists of names a thousand long. I closed my eyes and tried to focus on the movement that had just begun inside me. Trying to name a person you've never met--it's like caressing a face in the darkness and trying to describe it using words you've never heard.

I knew what I wanted to name my daughter, though: Josefine, after Nanny--Josefina. There was so much I wanted that name to carry. My baby girl would never be held by Nanny, as I was as a baby. She'd never be fed by her, never lie beside her in bed, never feel Nanny's soft, dry fingertips on her skin, or taste her tortillas, or see her in the doorway of her bedroom, giggling helplessly about something she'll never remember. She'll never know Nanny's presence, the way she filled our house from end to end. She'll never sit with her at the kitchen table, drinking coffee together, or get the full recap of a Spanish novela she doesn't care about, but will listen to because it's Nanny telling it, eagerly but also with a self-deprecating glint in her mercurial eyes.

And so she has Nanny's name. Like a locket she might wear, with a treasured photo, so that she'll never forget what she can't remember. She has Nanny's name so that one day she can ask, why Josefine, and I can tell her, though she'll hear the stories before then. She has Nanny's name so I can say it, every day, and think of her, though of course Josefine inhabits it wholly herself.

Before we drove down to Laredo, I took photos of photos in the baby book my mom brought up shortly after Josefine was born. Nanny hated photos, always hid from the camera, and when it caught her, she never gave more than the barest hint of a smile. But you can always see the love in her face. And in my own infant face--the furrowed brow, the thick hair sweeping low across my forehead, the round cheeks--I see Josefine. I look at how my hand rests on Nanny's chest, with a kind of unconscious possessiveness, and I know how it feels now to look down at that hand. To feel its tiny warmth and all its power. And somehow, in a tangled way, I feel comforted, as though through knowing my hand on her chest, Nanny also knew Josefine's, and through my love for Josefine, I feel Nanny's love for me.

Last night, when Josefine responded to her name, my tears were fast and sudden. Something different cracks me open every year. I looked away, wiping my face, and then turned back to her to say, It's okay, grown-ups cry, too, sometimes. She was staring at me with a serious, concerned expression, but before I could speak, she took my hand and smiled. Then she turned her whole body to face mine, so that from chest to hip, we were pressed together. She looked deeply into my eyes, her smile never faltering. I smiled back and whispered her name, and I felt Nanny all around us.

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