My Dad owned his own Plumbing & Heating business, built out of the garage and home provided by Great Aunt Gerty in exchange for the care given to her by my parents. Great Aunt Gerty was my Mom’s mother’s sister. She never married but raised chickens and was a seamstress. From all evidence, she was a diligent worker and I still have a pin cushion she made with red velvet and dried coffee grindings.
My Ma was very supportive of my Dad and his work and took on the awesome responsibility of raising the eleven of us while he was repairing furnaces on cold, winter nights. When he would arrive home, she would have a hot meal waiting for him.
We always seemed to be the last customer on the list to have our furnace repaired, so said my Ma. However, when my Dad had any new appliance to test, we were usually the first on the agenda, with my Mother never too keen on the new fangled thing!
My Dad’s initial attempt at providing us with an introduction to the modern age was his offering of a garbage disposal unit. (I do not think that Dad was too sold on the idea, himself!) Actually, it was at the bidding of my oldest brother, Ronnie. The care-free, easy does it, garbage disposal unit had just arrived on the seller’s market and Ronnie wanted to test it out in Ma’s kitchen.
No doubt controlling what went into the unit, and what didn’t, or shouldn’t, created another hurdle when Ma had so many small feet circling around her! Perhaps the grinding feature led to my younger brother, Billy, testing out its power on the toothbrush! and a popsicle stick! and last, but not least, the silver fork!
She did put up with it for several weeks, including almost daily repairs, and then one day—it unceremoniously disappeared!
No more was spoken about it.
A year passed and the automatic dishwasher arrived in my Dad’s shop!
Of course, we five girls were ecstatic! Can you imagine how much silverware we had to wash and dry each day?
However, the dishwasher never made it through the doorway’s entrance. It never even got to first base! My Ma planted her foot down immediately and permanently on the kitchen floor and spoke with clarity and firmness: “I have five daughters! I do not need or want a dishwasher!”
And, so it was…Response to the question of the day: I have three daughters and NO dishwasher!
“Jane Helen!” my Middle Name given significant emphasis as it rang out loud and clear!
Oh, oh head for the hills!
“William Joseph!” Another indicator that immediate flight was needed!
Triple the running speed and increase the range of being able to hear our names! Run for the tallest cedar tree and climb those limbs! Crawl into the clothes closet and bury yourself! Head for the woods and hide!
I do not know if the use of the Middle Name was common only among Catholic-raised children, but when Ma called for us and our full names rang out, it was an indication to us to run for our lives! We obviously were in deep trouble! Perhaps we had not finished washing the dishes, perhaps we had not made our beds, or perhaps we had gotten into a squabble with one of our siblings (the most likely reason)?
Regardless of the offense, we were being called to face the music.
How did such a holy and significant Middle Name evolve into a fearful threat of punishment? (…not that there wasn’t any reason for it!)
Our Middle Names were chosen from a variety of sources: an important person in our parents’ lives, a dear relative or a Catholic saint. And there are many, many saints in the Catholic Church! I have four volumes sitting on my bookshelves, containing hundreds of pages. There is a saint to cover every situation and disaster possible on Mother Earth!
I received my middle name in honor of my Godmother, Helen Gagan, a dear friend of my Ma’s. Helen had three children, two sons and a daughter; Helen became a nurse in her later years. She and her husband, John, drove my Ma to the hospital on the day that I was born, as the St. Michael’s area was enduring a treacherous ice storm. Pa was not available as he was repairing someone’s furnace and my Ma did not drive a car, or she surely would have driven herself! My Ma told me several cars had spun off the road the afternoon prior to my arrival in this world and that I was, indeed, fortunate to be alive!
I remember spending some time at my Godmother’s home when my Ma had errands to run. She was a quiet and gentle lady. I remember as a young child, feeling such awe and admiration for my Godmother. It was a special bond.
My Middle Name had a two-fold significance. It was also a saint’s name, St. Helena of the True Cross, who, in turn, was the mother of Constantine the Great, who politicized Christianity, causing a major world shift into a more tolerant attitude towards Christianity. It would be wonderful if, in today’s world, each group of religious people, whatever their faith, would be that open and accepting of others, despite the differences. Every group of people. regardless of religion, have suffered at one period or time in history. We all know what it is to suffer and it would be a kinder world if we could all practice a bit more compassion and tolerance. It always amazes me that each religion professes to love but then has no acceptance of another if there is a variation of the theme. Oh, here I go again…on my soap box! Let us return to the story at hand~
…the story of the youngest of the brood: Jennifer Louise. Of course, the baby and the favorite. She was given the name Louise because Pa loved the name; “Jennifer” –bestowed upon her in honor of my father’s favorite grandmother. Needless to say, Jenny did not get into much trouble at all! In fact, I think her first and middle names were always sung in delight. It pays to be the last born of eleven!
I asked my friend, who was not dipped into the Catholic waters at birth, if her mother ever used her middle name when calling for her, and she replied, “Yes, it was just the thing to do to give emphasis to the attention needed.”
My three daughters each have a Middle Name, Sara Jane, my namesake; Annie Elizabeth, both grandmothers were named Annie and Anna, and “Elizabeth” in honor of my god-daughter, Katrina Elizabeth and, of course, St. Elizabeth; and, Lara Agnes, after Lara’s Theme –the song–not the character–from the movie, Dr. Zhivago and Agnes, my mother’s name.
I am reflecting on whether I have employed the Middle Name syndrome with my own daughters. The jury is still out! Evidently, they did not get into as much trouble as I did!
Thus, the saga and the power of the Middle Name!
the season of winter
has nearly gone
but the winter wind
carries on with song
accompany the breeze
whistling through the trees
scarves pulled tight
around the face
coaxing the sun
to take its place
For years, I had miscounted and read all of the pop psychological profiles of the 7th child! Only recently, I slowed down enough to realize that I am #8! The first five born in our family were all boys: Roger, Robert, Ronald, Richard and Claude! WHERE did the name Claude come from? Apparently, my Ma loved Hollywood and the stars! She herself was one of the main actresses in her youth whenever St. Michael’s Church put on some plays. Claude came into being the same year, the English actor, Claude Rains, starred as Captain Renault in Casablanca (1942) .
Claude has built on the famous legacy ever since! I can still recall him as a teenager, with hair as long as Elvis’s, strumming an imaginary guitar, donning a leather jacket with the face of a laughing devil he had painted on the backside, standing in front of the fireplace and the huge mirror that hung over it, singing “You Ain’t Nothing but a Hound Dog!” He is the entertainer in the family, with jokes and witty sayings at the drop of a hat! As a young child, I recall being scolded for some innocuous thing I had done, and I replied, “I am not going to eat!” My brother gave me important advice for my entire life at the very moment: “No matter what, Janie, always eat!”
Following Claude’s birth, was my sister, Diane, who in turn, was followed by Barbara. Three years of hard labor and enriched family life passed and then, la voilà, I arrived, followed by William (aka Billy), Mary and Jennifer. This only confused me more! Now, I have this question—am I considered the oldest of the second lot, since three more siblings followed me and there was a three-year break? Or, am I simply, No.8?
Last evening I was reading a story authored by Martin Luther King, Junior’s sister, Christine King Farris, entitled My Brother, Martin, with one of my online English students who lives in China. Interestingly enough, she mentions a fur piece worn by one of the neighbor ladies, this brought to mind a story of two of my older brothers, Claude and Richie, and my Great Aunt Gerty, who lived with us. And so the story begins in the little German-American farming community of St. Michael’s.
Aunt Gerty’s Fur Piece
We lived in a rather large farmhouse, once owned by my Great Aunt Gerty. In her declining years, she offered her home and the shop attached to my parents, if they would agree to come and live with her and take care of her. They accepted. I do not know if this great lady was in her right mind or not—as my parents already had six boys and two daughters that they were bringing with them! I was still in the mind of God.
The decision was made. So, one day, my Dad and Mom made the 35-mile journey from the town of Jackson, to the tiny, two-street town of St. Michael’s, the birthplace of my Mom and where her parents had once run a little grocery store and tavern business. She was coming home with her husband and children to care for my Aunt Gerty. One of the many giving and generous acts my Mom made herself available for over the years, notwithstanding the generous offer of Great Aunt Gerty.
My parents brought five boys into the world, prior to a daughter being born. My Mom always said,
“The boys were so much easier to take care of than you girls!” Personally, I think she was just tired by the time the next four of us arrived in this world. Pardon my digression, but it leads us to the story of the fur piece. Without understanding the bedlam of the house, the story would not be as delightful!
I was only three or so at the time, but I recall vividly the uproar caused by the fur piece!
Apparently, my Great Aunt Gerty was beginning to decline in health and lay bedridden in the rear bedroom. Relatives from Port Washington would drive over once a month to visit her. Each time they visited they would bring a cake box along. However, there was no cake, or anything else!! And each time they would leave, my Mom would notice another missing knick-knack or piece of jewelry. Soon there was only the fur piece remaining. The fur piece was a shrunken fox, with piercing eyes, and little feet! Its glass eyes would peer into mine and when I saw it around Aunt Gerty’s shoulders, I kept wondering when this “thing” would leap off of her and attack me!
Evidently, this fur piece was a highly sought after possession!
On the morning these people were to arrive, Mom said at breakfast, “Well, there is only one thing remaining to be smuggled out with that cake box! The fur piece!” Then she went on to prepare eggs and oatmeal for the hungry mouths around the table. Of course, Claude and Richie’s eyes lit up at the mention of the fur piece and they began whispering between the two of them. My Mom was too busy with the food preparation to notice, but once the food disappeared, the two boys vanished! I thought to myself, “What are those two up to?”
The day moved on, and the relatives arrived and the visit began.
All of a sudden there was an old lady’s shriek from the bedroom! My Mom ran to see if Great Aunt Gerty had fallen out of bed.
However, when she arrived in the room, Great Aunt Gerty was sitting upright in the bed, with a stern face, and screamed at my Mom: “WHERE is that fur piece! You stole it! You thief!” Maggie would like to borrow it from me for a wedding she has to go to. WHERE is it?”
My Mom, of course, adamantly responded, “I have no idea WHERE your fur piece is!”
Meanwhile, I was outside, playing in the dirt under the cedar tree when I heard scrambling on the roof of our two story home. Claude and Richie were dangling a dead animal from the roof! I screamed as any three year old would do! Then I ran and said to Mom, “Claudie and Richie are on the roof! They killed an animal! It is hanging from the roof!”
My Mom, of course, scolded the boys and ordered them down. Then promptly took the “dead thing” and brought it to my Great Aunt Gerty.
Shortly, the relatives from Port Washington concluded their visit and, once again, left with the cake box.
Funny, I never did have a piece of cake!