Last month, my siblings and I worked out the final design for my father’s gravestone. We opted for a single stone with both my parents’ names on it, thinking forward to when my mother will die. I remember being glad that at least the part with the names was straightforward: one husband, one wife, one last name.
But even as we arrange to have that name carved in stone, I cannot help thinking about how transient it is. That name, my maiden name, is French, but our family is certainly not. My shtetl-born ancestors fled their home on a French boat, and some overworked Ellis Island official made the switch, either translating the name or just not listening very hard, Vito Corleone-style. Our true name is lost, and my family name is less than a hundred years old. So when I gave it up for my husband’s name, I was not giving up much.
And when we gave my husband’s last name to our children, that was not much to give, either. The auspicious name of “Fisher” came into being when my husband’s great-grandfather did something regrettable and had to flee the country quickly. When he came back, his name was “Fisher,” and that is all we know.
What is a Fisher? Some combination of whatever we cannot shake and whatever we decide to build, just like everyone else in the family of man. Trace anyone’s ancestry back far enough and you are almost guaranteed to hit a question mark or a lie or else an idea that may not sit well: that the family we really belong to is the family of man.
Most of us have a history of going back and forth across continents and oceans, whether we were dragged there or seeking fortune or fleeing oppression or escaping justice. Back and forth, around and around we go, taking on and shedding and making up names as we go. I do not say that history does not matter. But individual family names matter less than we like to admit; and eventually they will be taken away from us.
Shortly before he died, my father said that God was taking away more and more things from him: his health, his ability to visit my mother, who has advanced Alzheimer’s and lives in a nursing home, even his ability to walk. He told my sister it was good, to lose these things. He said God was getting him ready for death. He had a clear view of where he was headed . . .