Published on August 25th, 2020 | by Jacqueline Ellis3
Her first signed letter to Santa is a single page. She has decorated the margins with Christmas-themed stickers—a wrapped present, red and white candy canes, a reindeer wearing a green jacket and standing up on its two back legs. I have transcribed her wish list: “Dear Santa, Can I please get a Jessie doll or a Buzz Lightyear toy. A Little Einstein movie. Books. Nothing else, thank you. Love.” Then she has written her name, big enough to take up almost a third of the page.
The first letter is a little off to the side, tall and thin and spiky at the top. The next two letters are identically narrow, with slightly curved peaks. The beginning of each of these letters is exactly level with its end. The last letter is gigantic in comparison with the other three. It looks like she was drawing a planet or the sun: a giant circle anchored by a line at the right side that extends a little higher than it should. The simple symmetry of my daughter’s name made it easy for her to learn to write.
As I look at my daughter’s name now that she is eleven, I picture her, focused and serious, writing it back when she was three. It looks like she was tentative at first as she started to form the word, becoming more confident as she got to the end. My daughter’s name is short; only four letters. She has written it deliberately so that it takes up space.
As my daughter first started to know her name, as she learned how to write it, and then as she began to realize that the letters she wrote formed a word that belonged to her, I would tell her the story of how she got her name:
Once upon a time there was a girl called Amina. She had brown skin and curly hair and wore glasses like you. She liked music and fashion. When she was little, she had a cat, just like you do now.
“Did the cat look like Pippy?”
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
Amina would carry the cat around, tucked under her coat. The cat didn’t like hiding in her coat because it couldn’t see. It tried to push its way out, scratching Amina’s arms while it struggled.
“Did she get hurt?”
“A bit. But she didn’t mind.”
Amina lived with her mom in Brooklyn in New York City. The neighborhood was called Crown Heights. Her mom was from Nigeria, but she moved to the United States. Amina’s dad was from Jamaica, but he didn’t live with them.
“Did she have brothers and sisters?”
“I think she had brothers.”
Amina grew up. When she was older, she met a boy called Taj. They liked each other a lot and one day they found out they were going to have a baby.
“How does a baby get out from its mom’s tummy?”
“Usually it comes out of the mom’s vagina.”
“No! I don’t believe that.”
Taj was very tall. He had brown skin and curly hair like Amina and like you. And dimples in his cheeks just like yours. Taj’s mom died when he was a boy. Her name was the same as yours. You’re named after her.
“What was my mom’s last name?”
“Was that my last name?”
When a child born in the State of New York is legally adopted, a new birth certificate is issued. The date and place of birth remain the same as on the original birth certificate, but the child’s name is changed to the name the adoptive parents have chosen. On the new birth certificate, the adoptive parents’ names replace those of the child’s birth parents. From this document, I can tell my daughter the city she was born in, the name of the hospital, and the time of her birth, but her mother’s body—her months of pregnancy, her hours of labor, her skin, her muscles, her breath—is made invisible by the writing of my name in the box that says “mother.” There is a violence to this replacement of my daughter’s mother’s name with mine. Their shared experience—of being born, of giving birth—are hidden.
My daughter’s first name on her new birth certificate is the same as her original name. We added a middle name that reflected the Scottish lineage I inherited through my mother. My daughter’s last name on the new birth certificate is the same as my husband’s but different from mine. My husband’s last name is the same as his mother’s and is the name of the father of his three sisters. His own father’s name does not appear on his birth certificate. He did not know who his father was or even his last name until he was ten. His mother told him that his father had died in Vietnam, which wasn’t true. We thought, when we named our daughter, that their shared last name would give it new meaning, signaling the creation of a new family and no longer indicative of an absence or a lie. But this shared name is not the name my daughter was born with, which is the name she wants to know about when I tell her the story of how she got her name.
Before my daughter’s adoption was legally finalized and her new birth certificate issued, we planned a trip to England so that we could introduce our daughter to her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. We needed to get her original birth certificate for her passport. The adoption agency sent it to us in an envelope which we were not supposed to open, only show to the person at the passport office. The secrecy is to protect the birth parents’ privacy, which is the reason that, until 2020 in the State of New York, original birth certificates were sealed so that adopted children could not see their original names. The envelope containing the birth certificate with my daughter’s original name was not sealed. We opened the envelope like we had found a treasure map. Although we knew Amina and Taj’s names, the boroughs where they lived, how they met, their medical records, we hadn’t seen the document that recorded our daughter’s name, who she had been, before we met her.
I mailed my daughter’s original birth certificate back to the adoption agency as they had required. I should have made a copy so that I would have it to show her when she asked me about her name. Now I can only describe to her what it told us.
The space for “father” was blank, like the empty box on my husband’s birth certificate. But her last name was not the same as her mother’s. She has her father’s last name. I don’t know the story of this name, so I can’t tell my daughter, about the ways it connects her to her birth family, her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, the countries they came from, the languages they spoke, the religions they practiced, the food they made, the books they read, the stories they told each other. I can’t tell my daughter if her father inherited his dimples and his expressive eyebrows from his father or his mother just as I can’t tell her whether all the women in her mother’s family have the same curl to their lips or the same almond-shaped eyes as her.
I tell my daughter that her first name is her father’s mother’s name and that it was given to her to remember the mother he lost and the grandmother his daughter would never meet.
Perhaps her mother whispered this name as she reached into the bassinet at the hospital and stroked her daughter’s cheek with the backs of her fingernails. Maybe this is the name she murmured to her daughter as she nursed. This is the name my daughter’s parents chose for her. The name my daughter has learned to speak and write. A palindrome that reads the same backwards and forwards.
My daughter’s initials are “A.I.R.” On the day we brought our daughter home from the adoption agency office, we talked about her name with her parents. Amina said that the Scottish middle name we’d chosen suited her daughter. “It’s a girly name,” she said. “The way she moves her hands is so graceful.” She carefully took one of her daughter’s fingers in her hand and her baby curled her fingers one-by-one around her mother’s. Taj said that her new initials could be her DJ name. “DJ AIR. I could see her being a DJ.” He smiled at his daughter and his dimples matched hers.
One Mother’s Day, when my daughter was three and just learning about her name, I got her initials tattooed on the inside of my wrist in a tall, spindly font surrounded by a basic filigree. The letters represent each part of her name, but the artist forgot to add periods to separate the initials. The tattoo is just a word, AIR, embedded into my skin in black ink.