Essay

On Naming

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Jim Bratt is away today. We welcome guest-blogger, Carol Van Klompenburg. Thanks, Carol!

I was planting dianthus in my backyard flower bed when Barb arrived for the pots of hen-and-chicks that she ordered from me on a local Facebook site. She selected her plants and I set them in a box for her.

She was ready to head back to her car when she paused, looked at the range of plants bordering my backyard, and said, “Maybe you know the answer to this… ” She described a bush that she owned but could not name. “It’s like a lilac, she said, “but the blooms are more like flowers.” She had asked a local greenhouse, but they didn’t know. She had also stopped several times at a home that has a shrub like hers, but the resident had never yet been home.

I couldn’t answer her question, and she trudged up the slope to her car looking disappointed. Because she couldn’t find its name, her pleasure in her plant was diminished, or at least tinged with disappointment.
I know that ache. I, too, have plants I wish I could name, but can’t.

But I have also felt the pleasure of finding a name: Just this spring I finally learned that those gorgeous cannas with green and yellow striped leaves and orange blooms that I’ve seen in Pella parks each summer are named Pretoria. I bought six bulbs and planted them.

That same naming search occurs for people. Yesterday, my husband Marlo and I scoured our memories for the name of a woman whose path crosses ours every five years or so. But we could not retrieve it. We could describe her appearance and her occupation. We knew about her husband’s membership in a gospel quartet. But her name simply would not come to mind.

Then, a half day later, as often happens, we rediscovered it together. I said her first name, he supplied the second, and we celebrated with smiles.

What’s this naming business about anyway? Why does it niggle us to restlessness until we either learn or re-learn the correct identifying term?

I don’t think we assign the same significance to names that the ancient Hebrews did. We don’t equate a name with identity—except perhaps for our terms for God.

As Barb drove off, I put away my dirt digger and pots and compost. I watered the newly planted dianthus, sat on the deck, and dialed my mother, age 89. Since her recent move from a condominium to an assisted living facility, I’ve been dialing her number often.

I told her about my planting and plant sale, and the forecast for rain. We talked about my upcoming trip to see her. She started to ask about one of my sons and paused—she could not retrieve his name. Her great-grandchildren’s names have been a blur for several years now, but she has never forgotten the name of our son Matt.

I helped her out, gently supplying the name and then answering her question. As I tapped the icon to end the call, I mused about this new loss. She had lost Matt’s name, and along with it—it seemed to me—one strand in their relationship. She was a boat with one less rope to link her to the dock.

Names are links, I muse. They shape our bonds.

One February, traveling in Nicaragua, we tried to tell our taxi driver Miguel about the sleet we had flown through. We told him that in Dallas, Texas, ice (helado) had been falling from the sky. The next morning we remembered that hielo was the correct Spanish word for ice. We had told him that the sky was raining ice cream!

New to Spanish, we knew only one word for ice, sleet, or hail: hielo. The Sami people in the northern tips of Scandinavia and Russian have 180 words related to snow and ice—and as many as 1,000 for reindeer.
Their words—and ours—are shaped by what is important to our lives, and in their use words also strengthen those ties that bind.

As I child, I was taught that Adam’s role in naming the animals meant he had authority over them. But it’s not the giving of names I’m considering here; it’s the knowing or remembering of them—and using them.

When Marlo occasionally refers to me as “Mom” in talking with our adult sons, I wince. It’s a habit left over from training them as toddlers, I know, but I would prefer he used my name. When people greet me by name at Sunday morning worship, I warm to them.

Naming is one strand in a bond. It’s a tie in a relationship. It is not good for me to be alone, and naming is part of the bonding among God’s children, and with his world.

In this world created for relationships, a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but a rose without its name, or with its name forgotten, might not.

Carol Van Klompenburg is a writer living in Pella, Iowa.

Carol Van Klompenburg

Carol Van Klompenburg has worked with words in one form or another for 50 years. She lives in Pella, Iowa.  This essay originally appeared in Carol’s book, Tending Beauty: Forty Moments in my Gardens.  

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