Category Archives: Memory

Specific memories from my past.

What’s in a Name?

Being born of foreign parents, for the longest time, I had no idea I would have a problem with my name. Latvian was spoken in my home exclusively since my father, already sixty-three at my birth, never learned English. Both my brother and I gathered up English off the street.

My family called me Irmite (3 syllables, short “i’s”) or Irmi which are diminutives for Irmgarde. Before hitting the neighborhood and other American environments, I didn’t know how foreign-sounding and difficult my name would be for people. I didn’t know kids wouldn’t be able to say it or that I would need a short explanation or “pronunciation” lesson every time I met someone new. (This is true even today.)

Of course, I’m not the only kid in the world who has suffered the slings and arrows of a difficult moniker. We should probably create an online club, perhaps a 12-step program to accept our need for a “higher power” to deal with it. I have always marveled at modern parents who strap children with oddball spellings and sounds. What are they thinking?

Anyway, by the time I reached middle school, most of my schoolmates and neighbors had settled into calling me Irm, pronounced Erm, along with all of its rhyming sequences. It was not until college or maybe even later that I decided to insist people try saying the more Germanic “i” which is shorter and closer to the “e” in ear than anything else. I’ll never forget one woman who discarded my correction and said, “my mouth can’t make that sound.” Nice.

As I entered adulthood and lived away from childhood friends and family, I began looking for new names. I would give myself a new name and a new identity. But, it’s an odd thing to “rename” oneself. Secretly, I had hoped for some little catchy nickname that would catch on with the crowd. Never happened. Never. No cute little “cricket” or “bubbles” or “Bam-bam.”

Two of my erstwhile attempts at renaming myself were Zoe (the playwright years) and Shiloh (the cocktail waitress years), neither of which fit me particularly or stuck. I even tried initials, my middle name (Inese – 3 syllables, short vowels), and different spellings. Nada.

Today, nothing much has changed in the name department. I have changed my last name by marriage twice, but I have made peace with my first name and given up all other aliases. It’s a rough peace, but acceptance all the same. I discovered my name means “guardian of a small enclosure” and so I imagine myself as a shield for those beloved few who have stayed close over the years: my deep friends, my family, and my inner self, who will always be Irmite. It’s enough. It will do.

I Don’t Want to be a Writer

You ought to be a writer.

I heard this a lot from my mother. Isn’t that the person who usually starts the ball rolling? Of course, in third grade, writing didn’t sound like much fun at all.

“I don’t want to be a writer; I want to be a teacher.”

After all, it was teachers who helped my world hang together. It was teachers who were there day after day. And it was teachers, in the end, who got me reading. I discovered I could read at home and not be at home at all. I could be somewhere else.

By fifth grade, I had exhausted the children’s department and moved upstairs. The Indianapolis Public Library was one of those grand old buildings with Doric columns and marble floors that rang when I walked on them, even if I tiptoed. I would wander both adult floors, running my hands across the books and occasionally, I would even press my entire body against them, hoping the words would enter my body by osmosis. Then I discovered the plays.

The library had an entire section of pamphlet plays, mostly published by Samuel French, Inc. and the Dramatists Play Service. Colorful and easy to read, I entered the world of theater through those plays, watching the characters move around the stage in my mind. I could be any character; I could be every character. Best of all, I was in control.

As a result, my first writing success was a play I wrote about pen pals and Jack LaLanne. I believe it was called “Sincerely Yours, Katie.” (All of my characters had easy American sounding names, something I had long coveted after a grueling first grade where my endless name of eight letters seemed to extend from one edge of my desk to the other: Irmgarde.) I produced the play along with two of my friends and we performed it at school. I insisted everyone memorize their lines, wear costumes, and use real props. This wasn’t pretend, this was real. Oh yeah!

“I don’t want to be a writer; I want to be an actress.”