I have a photograph of my mother in her early eighties taken when she was still quite mobile. On a sunny spring day she faces the camera with the shoreline of the local harbour as a backdrop. She wears an old favourite, a rumpled, light mauve raincoat. A couple of swans can be seen immediately behind her - probably scouting for titbits. I'm glad they are in the shot, she was always happy to see them. Part of her face is in shadow, but her grey eyes are sharp and alert and she smiles tentatively, almost shyly, at me, the photographer.
My real name, the one I don't use on the blog, is all hard consonants. You bite into it, there's no syllabic softness, no flow. It labels me unmistakeably as a child of my time - I've yet to come across a girl born in the last twenty years, say, bearing the same first name.
The business of deciding what to call her daughters was my mother's domain, my father having no particular opinion on the matter. Or maybe it was easier just to let her have her way. When I had learned to read, at around six or seven, she showed me my entry in her book of Babies' Names and Their Meanings.
... From the Greek: Child of light, a pearl.
Over the years she would talk to me about it.
"That's what you are", she would say, pronouncing the definition with relish. "A child of light." She had a clear, resonant speaking voice and had dabbled in amateur dramatics.
The name's meaning clearly mattered a lot to her: it represented perhaps her hopes for herself as a mother and for me, and it symbolised something indefinable in our relationship that would remain immune from the conflict to come. She had such high aspirations, living as she did in a world of sometimes unfocussed ideals, and often found unpalatable aspects of reality too painful to tolerate or accept and this would make her very, very angry. She could be charming but she definitely wasn't easy.
Yet by the end of her life she had found a way through. She came up with resilience, courage and a somewhat lavatorial sense of humour. With the onset of a slow, terminal cancer, this last probably saved her as her body gave out, but she had always possessed an appreciation of the ridiculous and a sanity-saving (hers and mine both) ability to laugh at herself. In her sixties she had finally found an outlet for that intense idealism and this had stabilised her. She became a talkative, stubborn, cheerful old lady.
Maybe the choice of that name - with its meaning - was about other things as well. Her parents' marriage was difficult, though this was never mentioned, and her own was stressful. The month I was born purple lilac and flowering cherry were in blossom but there would also have been the moaning of the weekly air-raid siren tests (something I can remember being terrified of as a toddler), the Cold War and rationing.
Perhaps it was an attempt to protect her first child. A talisman.