Many years ago, I had a co-worker whose family background was Russian-Jewish. She mentioned that among people in that culture, infants were named for deceased family members in the hope it would induce the deceased to reincarnate in them. (It wasn't clear whether the practice stemmed from the Russian or the Jewish part of her heritage.)
I'm not sure whether I inclined to belief in reincarnation that long ago. But whether or not I did, I remembered what she'd said as being really odd. Surely not a practice that would be found anywhere else!
But recently, I've learned - from books by researcher Jim B. Tucker - that people in many parts of the world use that, and other folkloric tricks, to try to induce such reincarnations. A concept I find appalling: I don't think parents should let themselves have any preconceived notions about a child's previous incarnation, lest they unconsciously push him or her to be like someone with whom there is, in fact, no connection.
But knowing the practice is actually common...that a well-read American might have learned about it, even many years ago...has set me to wondering about my own name.
My legal first name, which I dislike, is Kathleen. Fortunately, I like the nickname Kay, and that's what I've had everyone call me, at least since my high-school years.
My father died when I was eleven. I don't think I ever discussed my name with him. What my mother told me was that they'd (supposedly) let my sister, then aged twelve - my only sibling - pick from a choice of three names: Kathleen, Maureen, and Patricia. But they'd really nudged her in the direction of the one they preferred. I dislike all three! As a child, I wanted to be a Susan or a Marilyn. Now, though, I think "Kathleen" was the best choice from the three, because it's the only one with a nickname I like.
For any reader who may be curious, my sister had been given Mom's name. And I was never jealous, because I dislike that name - I won't say what it is - just as much as I do "Kathleen"!
Here's what's "set me to wondering." Six years before I was born, Dad's aunt - a woman named Catherine - had died, tragically, in her forties.
Catherine was the much-younger sister of Dad's mother. Dad's parents and older sister had come to the U.S., from Ireland, in 1898; Dad was born in the U.S. in December of that year. Catherine came from Ireland to live with them when Dad was six, and she herself only sixteen.
By all accounts, Catherine was loved by everyone who knew her. But she never married, just kept living with her older sister's family. When she was an adult, the two of them worked in the same factory, making shirts and collars. Dad's father had worked as some kind of gardener or groundskeeper till he was disabled by a sunstroke; he died before my parents were married.
Dad's sister married before he did, and she and her husband had their own home. But when Mom and Dad married, it was understood that both his mother and Catherine would live with them (in a rented flat - they couldn't afford to own property). Catherine was still there when my older sister was born, and I'm sure my sister loved her. As I've said, everyone did!
But when my sister was six years old, Catherine set out one evening to walk to the Catholic church they attended, for a (non-mandatory) evening service. It should have been a pleasant walk, through residential neighborhoods with mostly-light traffic. But a drunk driver came up on the sidewalk and hit her. The injury wasn't expected to be fatal; but it caused a blood clot that struck her heart and killed her.
The family was devastated. And Dad always remembered the sad coincidence of Catherine's having joined the household when he was six, and died when his little girl was six.
I was born six years later. And Mom and Dad hadn't been planning another child. When I was an adult, Mom told me they'd conceived me accidentally; but when they'd realized she was pregnant, they'd immediately decided it was "meant to be," and they were going to be happy about it! Certainly, no child has ever felt more loved and wanted.
Loved and wanted by my parents. Certainly not by Dad's repulsive mother. But hey, she even resented Mom! While Mom and Dad were engaged, Mom heard his mother telling him, "Your father would turn over in his grave if he knew you were marrying one of the snakes!" (A reference to Mom's half-English ancestry.) And it wasn't true; Dad's father had never objected to their being a couple.
In later years, I understandably asked whether I'd been named for Catherine. Obviously, "Kathleen" is an Irish form of the same name. But Mom said that had never occurred to them.
I'm sure she wouldn't have lied. She'd undoubtedly never thought of it. But now, when I've given it more thought, I'm convinced Dad couldn't possibly have overlooked the connection.
I remember having heard, years ago, about his having teased his mother by calling her "Dahlia." That was the way I thought of its being spelled; I don't know how he would have spelled it. It was pronounced "DALE-yuh." I didn't get the point till I learned it was a nickname for her real name, which she was ashamed of and rarely used: "Bridget." In Irish Gaelic, the diminutive is "Brighdin," pronounced "BREE-deen." And more nicknames had been spun off from that: "Bidina" and "Bedelia," finally "Dina" and "Delia."
A man who understood that couldn't have failed to realize "Kathleen" is an Irish form of "Catherine"!
In itself, that doesn't imply anything about belief in reincarnation. It's very understandable that he might have wanted to name me for Catherine, but thought Mom might consider it bad luck to name a child for someone who'd died so tragically. So he just didn't mention what he was thinking.
But one attitude of Dad's, throughout my childhood, always struck me - and Mom - as puzzling. I had thick hair then, and he insisted it be kept long. In braids; but I think the braids were just a necessity, if it was going to be long. He certainly wasn't so shallow as to want me to look like child star Margaret O'Brien. He just wanted long, thick hair! And he hadn't required it of my sister, when she'd been that age. Hers had been comfortably short.
I developed a "mental block" about the accursed hair. I couldn't learn to braid it myself. When I was going away to a children's camp, at age eleven, I still couldn't manage to braid it. So Dad punished me by having it chopped off by a men's barber.
Admittedly, he also wanted Mom's hair to be long. She put up with it - worn in a bun, making her look older than she was - throughout their marriage, to please him. But why one child, and not the other?
When I began writing this piece, I remembered having once seen a photo of Catherine. I hadn't known what later became of it. But as I recalled, she had long hair worn in a bun. And her most striking feature was the thickness of that hair.
Now I've found the photo! I'm not sure whether there would have been hair in a bun behind her head, or it was all on her head. Some of it braided? I can't tell whether everything on her head was hair, or parts of it a hair-ornament of some kind. But her hair definitely was thick. (I don't see any resemblance between her and me, but I've always known I resemble my mother's family.)
Both my parents were high-school graduates, in an era when most lower-middle class people weren't. Dad had gone on to have some college. He'd lived and worked in New York City, and elsewhere, for several years before coming back upstate to settle down and marry. I'm sure he was very well-read - more so than Mom. And the books in our home included an encyclopedia! So he may well have learned about not only the concept of reincarnation, but some of the folkloric practices associated with it.
I myself see the coincidences here as being a trifle eerie. Catherine's having joined the household when he was six...her having died when his only child was six...another child's having unexpectedly come along six years later...and its having turned out to be another girl. (No one in my family would have seen a "666" sequence as a bad omen. Catholics may read encyclopedias, but they don't read the Bible!)
So Dad may have wanted me to be Catherine - that is, her reincarnation. Of course, that doesn't mean that I am.
That incarnation could fit between the life I've been postulating in England - when I yearned to go to Bayreuth, and couldn't - and the present life in which I achieved that goal. Catherine was probably born in 1888; my previous incarnation could have died by then. And the incarnation as Catherine could have been a "bridge" that brought me to the United States.
But there's one big problem.
In my lifetime, I've hated - truly hated - only two people. One of them was a public figure, a man I've always suspected of having orchestrated the assassinations of both John and Robert Kennedy. A good reason to hate someone!
The other was Dad's mother. And I believed, rightly or wrongly, that she also hated me. From Day One.
Aside from our real clashes, she figured in two scary dreams I had as a child. And while I won't go into details, I heard something, at her wake, that frightened me so badly - at about age fourteen - that I could, very possibly, have reacted by fleeing the wake and immediately killing myself. As it was, I lived with a secret fear for years before I learned that particular fear was unfounded.
I truly believed, in later years, not only that she was a witch, but that we'd been incarnated as rival witches in some earlier era.
So I couldn't possibly have been Catherine, who loved, and was loved by, everyone! Could I?
If Catherine secretly viewed her older sister as I did, why would she have lived with her all those years? Single women almost never lived alone in those days - but even if she never met a man she wanted to marry, she could have found some other solution.
Unless...she was really staying there to protect Mom and Dad? Especially Mom?
If I was she, and that had been the case, my present incarnation couldn't protect anyone. Dad's mother made Mom's life and mine miserable for the few years between Dad's death and hers.
I'll probably never be sure whether I was or wasn't Catherine. But thinking about it gives me goosebumps.
And I've realized there's another strange...synchronicity...in my family history.
I actually had two great-aunts with forms of the name I myself bear. Each of them was the maternal aunt of one of my parents. And they both died tragically.
I know the name of my mother's aunt simply as "Kate." She died in childbirth, during a long-remembered blizzard, in March of 1888. I don't know whether her death was in any way caused by the blizzard, or the timing was just a coincidence. But her baby also died.
Her widower later married one of her sisters - not my (beloved!) maternal grandmother - and they had a daughter whom they named Kathryn. (Yes, the Kathryn Moore, nee Morrissey, whom I mentioned in the first chapter of this essay.) Undoubtedly named for her deceased aunt; but they may have altered the form of the name, just as Dad did in naming me.
So both my "namesake" great-aunts met with tragic fates. And there's another eerie twist: one of them was probably born in the year in which the other had died!