Friday, March 24, 2023

Where Names Come From

I love Spitting Image and puppetry. I love it when we see the people bring life to their puppets. The pinnacle of genius in puppetry was War Horse. The show opens on an empty stage in black out. Slowly, a pin spot in the fly gallery, fades in and reveals a colt and his human movers (dressed in glorious Victorian equine haberdashery). And as the colt springs to life, with gentle little whinnys and snorts, I cried with delight. 

Spitting Image is entirely different with its grotesque miniatures of famous politicians and celebrities. Their savage parodies are hilarious, but I’m not sure about watching two hours of it.

When, thanks to my friend Leslie, I found my birth mother, it was an intense experience. I was there with Steve, and I remember a night sitting alone on the top step of the stairs to the main floor. I’d purchased a key ring because of the fleur-de-lis in plastic that was attached to it.

You have to remember that I grew up believing passionately that I was French. I have many stories, that I won’t share here, of behaviour that is astounding, even to me. In my brain, of course I knew I wasn’t French, but I did. I felt it must be due to my unavailable heritage. The reunion was as much about the miracle of my knowing, and meeting Françoise, ma mere.

I sat on the stair crying and rubbing that piece of plastic on my body through the night. Mostly, it was the pride I felt for knowing. It was like living a miracle. I knew something about myself. I never accepted being part of the lives of the people who adopted me. They were short-term custodians of a mystery. So, to know something real about myself accounted for the intensity of my emotions.

Within an hour of meeting her, she made it clear that I would never learn the name of my father from her. She told me a bit of his story and then recanted it the next day. Then she told me a second story. That proved to be untrue as well. I know because I found my birth father. There were other things as well, that prevented me from any kind of deep emotional bond. But I was a dutiful son for the rest of her life.

My birth mother’s surname was Berd. Her real surname was Loranger, and she had a cousin with the same name, Françoise Loranger. The cousin was a writer and became famous. For reasons I don’t know, she joined Union des Artists, the actors’ union of Québec. So, when my mother, an actress in the days when there were actresses, tried to join the union, she couldn’t because her name was already ‘taken.’ Bérnadette, was her second name. It yielded the surname my mother chose: Berd.

My mother and I were truly fêted in Montreal during our reunion. I stayed in the home of the president of the board of Place des Arts. We had dinner with Michel Tremblay. We were wined and dined by elites of the stage and screen. One dinner was huge smorgasbord of famous Québecois foods. It was the highlight of my life, that experience, being celebrated about something true about me, about who I was. I’d lain in bed all my life, pretending to speak French by making French sounds I heard in the media.

Years later, I attended a festival in Québec city. It might have been the Grande fête de la Francophonie, maybe not It was an annual festival that was positively thrilling. Down in the old town, the streets were covered in straw. All the shopkeepers were dressed like les habitants, and actors in historical costumes played out the lives of both les habitants and first nations people.

I, of course, was smoldering with my overwhelming sense of belonging. Everything thrilled me. The best part was pursuing my curiosity about signs I saw with surnames on them perched high on sticks in the intersections, so I approached one. I discovered this wonderful experience. Around all the signs are tables with books and people dressed as Habitants. They were all volunteers working with the archives of the city, to provide Québecers access to their lineage.

On the second day of the festival, I returned with a chart of my ancestry given to me by another Loranger as a welcoming gift and went to the right booth for my name. I had a great, great time! I discovered that before my family name was Loranger, we were Rivards. And I remember very clearly that he said to me, “And then came the post office.” And then I got a history lesson that I have never forgotten.

There were a great many Rivards once, in Québec. There were a great many of a great many of families in Québec. They were Catholics who had many children. And they often lived in assembly, so when the postal service began, people of ‘clans’ started changing their names to differentiate themselves from others in their family.

The archive volunteer conjectured, for example, that my father might have had red hair. He told me that within the ‘clan’ of Rivards, that there would be a great many Jeans, or Josephs, or Pierres, so there were probably many boys with each of these names. They’d acquire nic names, and with red hair, in Québec, a person would really stand out. He might have been, Rivard l’oranger. And then the name evolved.

I thought of that history story today when I read about the origins of surnames. When people only had single names, surnames were exclusive to the aristocracy. Single named peasants were of the person with their castle. As society evolved to when many former peasants became landowners, often being described as of/from an aspect of the landscape. John by the river, Joan by the Oak tree, etcetera.

Then the Black Plague came. It is the most fatal epidemic in human history. It created mobility in the workforce as the marketplace became competitive for labour. People started moving around and their loss of place definition required a different way to be a unique person. Soon, having a surname was the norm.

Two stories about how names change.

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