My father named me Susan, he said, because the Hebrew form of it, Shoshanah, meant the Rose of Sharon. One of his favorite books in the Old Testament was the Song of Solomon, and he particularly liked the passage, “I am the Rose of Sharon and the Lilly of the Valley.” I love that my father was so deliberate in choosing my name, and his story about that choice is one I never tired of hearing.
I know it is customary to teach children to address adults with a title, such as Mrs. or Miss, as a sign of respect. I get that, and I don’t want to go against a parent’s wishes and negate their good and proper training. However, there is another part of me that wars against this custom because using a title in front of a name, unless it is a familial title such as Aunt or Uncle, puts a formal barrier between the adult and the child that in special cases shouldn’t be there.
For example, the two little girls, C and N, who visit me every Wednesday afternoon, call me Susie. Their mother has repeatedly instructed them to call me Miss Susan, but I refer to myself as Susie when I am with them, and that has, gratefully, stuck. I love to hear the little one, N, say to me, “Susie, kween me up,” after she has had her fill of peanut butter and crackers. When you feel free to plunge your thumb into your friend’s brand new jar of peanut butter when her back is turned, you are definitely on a first-name basis. After I told the girls that it is time for them to go home, C usually says, “Susie, let’s do one more dance. Isn’t that a good idea?” I get a warm feeling hearing my name and cave in every time. We end up doing at least one more dance, or one more story, or one more whatever it is that C tells me is a good idea.
You see, these two sweethearts are my friends, and really good friends don’t need titles. I used to be a teacher and was close to many of my students. Some of them kept in touch with me through college, and a few even maintained our relationship into their adult lives. I remember telling one of my students, after she had married and had her first child, “Anna, you can drop the Mrs. now. Just call me Susan.” She tried that name on, reluctantly at first, feeling strange because I had been Mrs. O for so many years. But after a few times, she said, “I like calling you Susan. It makes me feel like I’m your friend, not just your student.”
The last conversation I had with my mother, a couple of days before she died, revolved around a childhood game she used to play in Sunday School. She tried to play it with me, but I couldn’t figure out the puzzle. She started by saying, “I’m going on a trip, and I’m going to take a daffodil. Now it’s your turn.” I thought I knew this game. All I had to do was repeat what she said and add something of my own that I would take. We’d keep going back and forth, repeating the ever growing list until one of us couldn’t remember anymore. So I said, “I’m going on a trip, and I’m taking a daffodil and a toothbrush.” My mother smiled and said, “No you didn’t figure it out. Now it’s my turn again. I’m going on a trip and I’m going to take a daffodil and a doily.” For my turn, thinking the trick was that I needed something that started with a D like her list, I added a doughnut. She laughed and said, “You still don’t get it. Your name is Susan, so you have to bring things that start with an S. My things start with a D because D is for Dorothy, and that’s my name.”
At the end of her life, my mother was not thinking about her life as our mother or as my father’s wife. She was thinking about her early years, when she was just that young girl with the pretty red hair that used to play the name game with her friends. Our names hold so much of who we are at the most basic level, who we started out being. I love to hear someone call me by my name. S is for Susan, and that’s my name.