One day, as I was visiting with my mother and watching the very first Harry Potter movie, my mother pulled me into the house, got ready for bed, and told me that my nickname at school was Hunter, after the character Harry, but that I should be called Meghan after the heroine of another series of books.
Later in the film, an unknown figure approached Harry. Harry stopped him and said, "It's nice to meet you, eh?" and asked if he knew anyone by that name. The stranger shook his head. "You didn't look like Meghan to me."
At the time, this struck me as a curious remark, but I wondered whether my mother could have had good reason for identifying me with Meghan. Her son Daniel was a classmate of mine and, when I was a child, we played a series of games together, making up imaginary games and cat and mouse roles. Later, I met her mother in a co-worker's meeting. Daniel and I spent a lot of time together in the summer of 1997. Later that fall I told my mother I was a "meghan," and she explained the origins of her own friendship with Meghan.
When I wrote about this last year, I was surprised to read and respond to comments suggesting that I had assumed an identity or normality in her face. People advised me to learn more about how people identify themselves, and even offered thoughts about how I might locate my identity based on identifying Meghan. But the main message I heard was that people hope their children won't assume identity roles on autopilot. Others were eager to give advice on how to avoid feeling a sense of confusion and expectation.
Which is understandable. Many families begin the conversation early about who will take on which role. "So, when you start elementary school," my mother had told me, "you will say, 'M' for mother and 'M' for father,' and give Dad your lunch money and say, 'Go to jail!'"
I could still hear her words, even though she had only said "him" and "his" many times in those first months, but I couldn't recall all of them. Still, I liked her choice of nicknames. It was simple but distinctive. My father had been a musician and my mother a high school English teacher. As a child, I tended to take what I did at home seriously.
One of my earliest experiences with a role model came when I was in the third grade, when my teacher delivered her prepared monologue for the middle school French French stage, and my teacher described the character I would play. "It is called 'Mr. Smallcap,'" she said.
"It sounds too evil to be true, but if you play it true, you'll fit in with your classmates."
I thought that I was best for this role.
Within a year, I was the first person in my family named after a famous author. My great-grandfather had been named while in the service, and he never chose a name for his children or grandchildren. My great-grandmother, who was born in Austria before the revolution, had a Latin name. She married an Englishman, and their children were all named after Milton and Vergil. That name was Milton, of course. I was named after Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.
While with classmates and friends I stood out for my last name, in the family's household we stayed with Thomas. Why? Over time, a chance discussion with my mother revealed that my paternal line was not primarily Catholic, and my mother's parents' are more Oriental, so that was the assumption.
Years later, as I spoke with my grandmother, she confessed that she had given her last name for her own reasons. Her sister was named Claire, and her father's name was Birkelam, Birkelam.
This father was the son of a Jewish family. He met and married a Spanish woman and they had four children, but all of them were given Birkelam. This changed a lifetime ago, and now my great-grandmother's last name is not Birkelam but Birkelam-Pickett. She lived a rich life, but she wasn't given the burden of family inheritance. To the degree that I have that burden, my parents have imposed it.
The child I have is stronger, stronger than these Birkelams. I will never forget my mother's words: "It's nice to meet you, Meghan."