Aunt Mary? Mrs. Shepherd?

Aunt Mary? Mrs. Shepherd?



Beth knew the answer.

Beth knew the answer.


"...a rose by any other name..."

“…a rose by any other name…”

My mother’s two years as a kindergarten teacher in Kansas City were rich with stories that took place long before I was born. This is the third story from that time period.

Remember the large group picture of my mother in the back row, posed with the other staff and the kindergarten students? My cousin Beth was visiting that day, so she was included in the picture, too. What the picture doesn’t show is the intense argument she had with one of the little boys in the class. “That’s my Aunt Mary,” Beth told him proudly. “No, it’s not,” he replied indignantly. “That’s Mrs. Shepherd.”

“No, sir.”   “Is too.”   “Uh-uh.”   “Uh-huh.”   Back and forth it went.

My mother made it a teaching moment for the whole class: names can show our relationship to other people ~ Mom, Grandma, Aunt Mary, Mrs. Shepherd, or a nickname like Mary Ibbeth or Mary E.   Names can also make it clear what we do or who we are to others ~ teacher, writer, friend, neighbor. We can have many names, and if someone tells you, “Don’t call me that,” then be polite and don’t use that name.

Writers—including my mother, before the dementia—know that literature has many examples of the importance of a character’s name. “Call me Ishmael,” the opening line of MOBY-DICK, is a classic example. In Neil Gaiman’s THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, much importance is attached to the character learning his name and who he is: “Kiss a lover ~ Dance a measure ~ Find your name ~ and buried treasure.”

Jarod Kintz, author of   99 CENTS FOR SOME NONSENSE, had a different perspective. “Male or female, if my name were either Don or Dawn, I’d be up at sunrise to celebrate the glory that is me.”

W.C. Fields said this about the name issue: “It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.”   Which he might have taken more seriously if he’d been bullied on the play ground. Or he might have shrugged and said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”   Oh, sure; children aren’t ever hurt by name calling.

My mother never saw Andrew Lloyd Webber’s CATS, but she enjoyed T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which was the core of the musical. “…Before a Cat will condescend…To treat you as a trusted friend…A cat’s entitled to expect…These evidences of respect…And so in time you reach your aim, and finally call him by his name.”

The story of my cousin Beth arguing about whether my mother’s name was Aunt Mary or Mrs. Shepherd makes me smile. This Christmas Mom’s dementia is so advanced that I doubt either name—or any of the others—will mean much to her. She fades in and out of life as a child on the farm, and sometimes scenes from working with my dad or raising children.

For those of you who have a loved one in a similar situation, I wish you the simple joys of being together: gentle humor, genuine acceptance, delicious foods and holiday music. In difficult situations, feeling love and hugs are more important than remembering names.

"...and so in time you reach your aim, and finally call him by his name..."

“…and so in time you reach your aim, and finally call him by his name…”




Filed under Dementia/Alzheimer's, kindergarten lessons about life, life questions, memories for great-grandchildren, special quotations, teaching, writing

55 responses to “BY ANY OTHER NAME

  1. Even in dementia, I doubt your Mother will be anything but the gentle lady she’s always been Marylin. She”l be as quick to react to the warmth of the strangers you’ve become as she would if she remembered you.Therefore I expect she will react to the hugs, kisses and smiles she receives from her visitors over the holiday period.
    I wish for even a momentary insight that allows her to see and remember you, which will create such a special moment for you.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx
    Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda.

    • That would have been a special moment, David, but I just returned from my visit with her, and it didn’t happen. I took a book of children’s Poems and Prayers to read to her at bedtime. If she didn’t like what I was reading she’d say, “You can go now.” But if she did like one of the poems or prayers, she’d say, “Read again.” And again.
      I read the entire book aloud to her twice. That was special because she was relating to the poems and prayers, and I’d like to think they touched something in her memory.
      Massive Hugs and Merry Christmas!

  2. I hope your Christmas will be special for you Marylin…

  3. God bless you and your mother this Christmas – He knows everyone’s name. This story reminds me of a similar argument I had when I started school (aged 5). We had a teaching assistant who was the daughter of one of my mother’s friends, and I knew her as Barbara. She wanted to be called Miss Smith, but I knew she was Barbara. Finally, she put me outside the classroom door for being disrespectful. I was very perplexed: how could she be 2 people?

    • It just doesn’t make sense for young children, does it? They call it as they see it, one name over another. But at least you didn’t get into a brawl with another child, though that probably would have been more fun than being put outside the classroom.

  4. Your last paragraph has struck such an emotional chord, it’s hard to find the words to comment, Marylin. This is beautiful. Wishing you and your family peace and joy this holiday season. xo

    • Thank you, Jill.
      Dementia has taken so much; it seems almost unimportant to lose specific names after all the memories and interactions she’s lost. We’ve learned to be grateful for what still remains.
      Peace and joy to you and your family, too.

  5. Wonderful post Marylin! I could go on and on with comments on how we named our children based on the meaning of the names
    chosen, how my mother-in-law is in a rapidly advancing state of dementia and this will be the first Christmas where she might not know one or more of our names, how much I Iove the musical “Cats” and can’t wait to experience it with my daughter, but, simply put – your post was a beautiful reminder of Christmas hugs and cherishing little moments! Much love to you on Christmas and I wish you much joy and many blessings in the new year! Robyn

    • Robyn, we could both share all the name references, and probably laugh at some of the choices of nicknames, and I did take my daughter to CATS after Jim and I’d seen it and enjoyed it so much. Seeing it through Molly’s eyes–and she had listened to the tapes so long that she had to bite her lip to keep from singing along–and enjoying her amazement made the experience wonderfully new for me as well.
      Much love and joy and many Christmas blessings to you and your family.

  6. You and your mother are certainly going through one of the most difficult struggles life can give. My mother passed away from dementia last year, but I remember her laughter, humor and child like nature that she retained.

    May your mother and you have such joy.

    • Thank you, Bella. I want to be like you, remembering the laughter, humor and child-like nature.
      As difficult as her dementia is, my father died of Alzheimer’s years ago, and he was in the “rage stage” and very out of character for much of the time. I’m very grateful my mother’s personality hasn’t changed in the same way.

  7. Claudia

    The story of the children calling your mother by different names…ah, a classic. It is amazing in life but we ARE different beings to different people…sometimes even to ourselves. My name has caused me pain in my lifetime, shaped or endorsed a negative image. As old as I am, I am still trying to make my name fit. Once email came in, I signed my name with small letter always (as e.e. cummings!) …trying to remember to sign with a cap now, a little way to say I am OKAY and I am ME. I hope you have a Merry Christmas with all your loved ones next week.

    • Very interesting, Claudia. I’ve known three Claudias in my life, and all of you are lovely, creative and gracious. But not one of you has liked your name. One friend’s name was a feminized version of her Uncle Claude, and though she liked him, she adamantly hated her version of his name.
      I love that you imitated e.e. cummings and signed your name with small letters. I never liked my name while I was growing up, either; I should have signed it in lower case letters! Merry Christmas to you!

  8. Your posts always touches my heart and soul. I will remember your last paragraph when I celebrate Christmas. I hope that your holidays are also filled with love and hugs and moments to share .

  9. You are so right, Marylin -the actions shown to those with communication difficulties are so much more powerful than words. And what’s in a name, anyway. I have three forms of mine – Jennifer (not preferred – only uttered when i had been naughty), Jenny (as i’m mostly known) and Jen to my inner circle. I always wanted to be called Miranda – i have no idea why.

  10. juliabarrett

    Alzheimer’s distills us down to our essence. Those memories, for your mother, live in her core, in her every cell. She loves you. She knows you and the rest of the family. She simply can’t reach those memories.
    In the end we all return to your childhood to some extent. This is more pronounced in dementia.
    But what your mother is, her being, hasn’t changed. Not really.

    • I believe you’re right, Julia.
      It’s been a long time, but for awhile there were many brief shining moments of awareness when we’d look at each other and I was absolutely certain, at that moment, she was clear and connecting with who we were. Those were wonderful moments.
      So I remember them and am grateful, and I do know that deep inside, she is still there.

      • Molly

        I really think there are still times she knows us, but she just gets confused before she can verbalize it.

      • You’re right, Molly.
        My best moments with Grandma now are at night, when she’s tucked under the covers and I’m reading children’s poems and prayers to her. There are moments–fleeting, but real–when she does know what’s going on.

  11. Names and naming – a powerful thing as your many allusions illustrate. I found that learning my students’ names early in the semester was a wonderful way to develop rapport.

    My first-grade teacher, Miss Longenecker, was also my Aunt Ruthie, who showed me no partiality as a niece. But she had others names too: tax-collector, principal, and later sponsor for Lutheran Social Services.

    As you say, ” a rose by any other name is still a rose”!
    Merry Christmas, Marylin, and thank you for another heart-warming post.

    • You’re welcome, Marian, and thank you for sharing the story about your Aunt Ruthie. I’m smiling at the restraint that she as a teacher, and you as her young niece, showed in the classroom. In kindergarten, my cousin Beth was only visiting my mother’s class, and there was absolutely no objectivity! 🙂 Which is what I’d expect with an exuberant kindergartener. And it was much better than the boy who tied his shoelaces to the chair, or the one who had to take a rest behind the piano. What a colorful and amazing age!
      Merry Christmas to you, too, Marian.

      • Teaching first grade for 17 years was one of the most rewarding jobs I ever had. I wish I had kept a journal to be able to remember all those precious and heart warming moments. They were so many of them. I had a little boy with down syndrome that couldn’t pronounce my last name (de Broekert) and called me Mrs. Broken Heart. That year he was right on because I did have a broken heart.

      • Oh, Gerlinde, what a touching story. My daughter has several students with Down’s Syndrome in her class, too, and they call her Miss Moisture because they can’t say Mosher.
        Your “broken heart” name being correct for that year is very sweet. My mother said that teaching kindergarten was a delightful opportunity to be part of children’s lives on the cusp of education, to enjoy their genuine childish attitudes and they become little students.

  12. Names are interesting, aren’t they? How we come by them, what they mean, what others ascribe to them and yet we are who we are, regardless of how we are called. Your post brought back a memory. My dad used to kid and say, “Doesn’t matter what you call me, just don’t call me late for dinner.” This was during the times when pejorative labels were given people from different ethnic groups. So, it was his way of brushing off the name-calling.

    Merry Christmas Marilyn, to you and your family and all the best in the New Year. You are giving your mother the most wonderful gift of all, your love with your remembrance of her as she was and as she is now.

    • Thank you, Diana.
      When I read what you dad used to say, it reminded me of my own dad. He said that he was in second grade before he realized that his name wasn’t “Ray Don’t” because he was always getting into something or doing something that needed correcting.
      All the best to you in 2015, Diana!

  13. Nancy Parker Brummett

    What a wonderful perspective on realization you may never hear a loved one call your name again, Marylin. Thank you.

    • I still remember the day when I realized that my mom smiling and patting my hand and saying, “You’re just the nicest girl,” was, under the difficult circumstances, a true compliment. The dementia had blocked the name connection, but she knew that whoever I was, I loved her and would help her. After that, actual names didn’t matter as much.
      Merry Christmas to you and your family, Nancy.

  14. I could hear the argument. What a lovely story and another example of your mother’s wisdom.
    Every argument should become a teaching and learning moment.
    Enjoy your moments and your memories.

    • That’s my goal, Rod, to enjoy my moments and my memories. In combination, they’re the most important thing when I’m with my mother.
      A joyous and peaceful Christmas to you and your family.

  15. Glee Kracl

    I immediately thought of our girls when we would refer to “their” aunt or uncle as “that’s my brother”, or “that’s my sister”. The banter back & forth of who belonged to who brings back fond memories. You have stirred so many of my own memories of my mom through your stories. Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts. Have a Blessed Christmas and please give “my Aunt Mary” and “your mother” a hug from me!!

    • I will do that, Glee!
      One of the things I like about being Mor-Mor to my grandchildren is that the Swedish meaning–“Mother’s Mother”–automatically makes it clear to the children if this is their grandmother on their mother’s side, or on their dad’s side. (If it was on the dad’s side, it would be Far-Mor for “Father’s Mother.”)
      When Grace was born and I told my mom that I was going to be Mor-Mor, and what that meant, she didn’t miss a beat. She smiled and said, “Then that makes me Mor-Mor-Mor.”
      Your Aunt Mary and my mother wouldn’t recognize either of us, Glee, but she’d think we both were just the nicest girls!
      Merry Christmas! 🙂

  16. Beautiful post, Marylin. Names can be important to people. I answer to Andrew or Andy without problem. My mother’s name was Gwyn and she disliked it intensely when people called her Gwen. In Cantonese there is an honorific I always like: it is ‘sifu’ (see-foo) – which can mean anything from teacher to craftsman or just a mark of a respect to a wise old elder. I think sifu would suit your mom well.

    • Oh, thank you, Andrew! I love it. Sifu does fit my mother, it really does.
      Especially at sweet moments like this, I wish she could clearly understand a word–in this case Sifu–and realize that even in another language, she has received a compliment for who she is.
      Truly, Andrew, thank you for this.

    • Molly

      Andrew, that name would also fit my mom, Marylin! Thank you for such wonderful comments about my grandma.

  17. Love the line about, so true!! Oh Marylin, as always, your posts are full of the decency, respect, gentleness and poignancy of a life well lived. In so many ways. You have moved me so much that I hardly know what to say…and you know how often that happens, right? All that you embody, in difficult circumstances, in the simplicity of what really matters in the love, acceptance, joy and blessing of family life no matter what, that is what Christmas is all about, indeed every day of the year. Names are so important…my Irish grandmother named me apparently, while drinking a glass of sherry, so the story goes. I’m also the only one in the family without a middle name and often wondered why. Your story of your cousin Beth reminds me – my grandmother’s name was beautiful..Madeline Dorothy. To me she was Granny of course but to her friends she was ‘Maddie’. They had northern accents and so to me as a little girl, I couldn’t understand why they insisted on calling my Granny ‘Muddy’…in my mind, she wasn’t at all muddy 😉
    Wishing you and your family a most joyous and blessed Christmas Marylin, I’m signing off later today until the New Year but I’ll be in touch.

    • Sherri, your comments are so touching and reaffirming. Thank you. Now I’m the one who hardly knows what to say.
      So I’ll life a glass of sherry and toast you…Sherry Madeline. Change the spelling and give you the middle name of your Irish grandmother. It won’t change who you are–you are already quite wonderful–but for at least this Christmas you will be Sherry Madeline–and I truly wish you and your family a joyous and blessed Christmas, too.

      • Oh Marylin, you’ve given me the best Christmas present ever 🙂 Wow…I LOVE my new name…Sherry Madeline…and that’s who I shall be for Christmas and who knows…maybe beyond! I raise a glass right back to you my friend and say thank you for bringing so much to my life. And I don’t say that lightly ⭐

      • I gladly accept your toast, Sherry Madeline! Enjoy every moment with your family this Christmas, and when you get back to the keyboard see where your new name takes you!

  18. Marylin, what a lovely, thoughtful post. Though my name is Joanne, my loved ones and close friends call me Jo. At a place I worked at a few years ago, there was another Joanne so I was called Jo. It was great. It felt like I worked in a place with all my friends.
    Love and best wishes to you and your family-

  19. Jim

    The holidays are especially difficult when someone we love no longer recognizes us. Marylin, your advice in this posting’s last paragraph is superb, and I know it comes from many difficult experiences with your mom and dad over the years. We thank you for creating and maintaining this blog, which so often offers wisdom, warmth, and encouragement.

    • And I thank you, dear Jim, for helping me maintain this blog, for fixing all the glitches, for rescuing me when I call for help, and for generously supporting (and sharing the driving) all these monthly visits to Kansas. You were the loving, helping, caring son for your mother, and now the son-in-law who continues the tradition with my mother. I love you, honey.

  20. You are in my heart, Marilyn. My Mom passed in 2001 and I wish that I could still spend time visiting with her and talking with her. Your mother might not remember many things, but I do hope that she feels the love you have for her. Warm wishes for you and your family this Christmas and Happy New Year. 😉

    • There are times, Judy, that even with the advanced dementia blocking her memory and responses, I still believe that some very tiny part–a touch or a sound or a moment of clarity–does connect us at our hearts. It’s what we both hold onto with our mothers, and it does keep us connected, don’t you think?
      I wish you past Christmas memories of your mother, Judy, and true heart connections.

  21. Molly

    Mrs. Shepherd or Aunt Mary…..kind of makes me appreciate my student J.C. calling me Mrs. Moisture instead of Mrs.Mosher! Also my student, B.L., just calling Mosher in the sweetest, deep little monotone voice.

    As teachers we have to appreciate when our students make up nicknames for us (as long as they are appropriate) because it is their way of showing their connection to us.

    Thank you for the wonderful kindergarten story about Grandma, I love it!

  22. Oh, how I wish your Grandma could push aside the dementia and compare teaching stories with you now, Molly. She would love your enthusiasm and talent and compassion and genuine appreciation for your students.
    Dad and I loved visiting your class and participating in the cookie-decorating and delivering activity you did with all your students to affirm showing gratitude to those who’d helped them. You do an amazing job, Molly, so on behalf of your grandmother, your dad and I will tell you how proud we are of you and all you accomplish.

  23. And when the job you are meant to do is also the job you love doing and accomplishes so much good for others…that’s an amazing gift you’ve been given, and also a wonderful gift for those you’re working to help.
    That’s quite a gift, Mookie. It’s also quite rare.

  24. You honor your mother so beautifully with this blog, Marylin. All that she is comes through you in remarkable ways, like your last paragraph in this post.

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