~a column by Colleen O’Brien

Do you name things in your lives? I mean, besides your children and pets? Things like cars and houses, rocks and birds, flowers and so forth?

I started doing this when I moved half a continent away from everyone and all that I knew except the man I married, so I figured it had something to do with homesickness or loneliness, the longing of it all.

The first thing I named was a houseplant with big leaves that dropped one by one in a noisy manner, crumpling up and falling to the floor with a really creepy sound. I had named this plant “Toby,” after my husband’s dad, not because he was creepy but because I liked his name and missed him. Quickly after the plant went into what sounded like and looked like death throes, I put it outside in the sun, renamed it “No Name” (this was to remove it from any connection with the real Toby), and it revived.

The next thing I named was our first automobile, an orange VW. All VWs come with the nickname “Bug,” so I called ours “Boog,” after a friend by that nickname in Jefferson.

Once started, the naming game became a habit, mostly to myself. I mean by this that I’ve never hung signs on things. My current car, for instance, is named “Princess.” My friend named her when we took off together on a road trip. She patted the dashboard, said, “Princess, take care of us,” and off we went. The little Honda remains my reliable princess-take-care-of-me pal. I have refrained from putting a license plate on her that says her name.

In the 1980s my family had a blue Subaru that we called “Bluebaru.” This was because our daughter, who was at an age when she thought it would be appropriate if we had a Porsche, said in dramatic sadness, “Driving around in a bluebaru is not cool.”

At one time, we had a second- or third- or maybe twelfth-hand Jaguar that was, hands down cool, the coolest vehicle we ever owned – silver gray, red leather upholstery, wood dash, roomy back seat like a London cab. And pretty little buggy that it was? I called it “Lemon.” My husband did not call it that because it was his purchase and his pride. Every third time I drove it, the engine stopped (just stopped), and I had to call a cab or a friend to get me and my children and groceries home. It never stopped on its owner until one day when the engine caught fire on the freeway while he was driving. That time it got towed away. For good. Never called Lemon by him, of course, at least in my hearing. But know that in my memoirs it’ll be called Lemon.

In a backyard of one of the houses we lived in, I knew a rock that was big, craggy, personable, almost as if there were a smile in the profile. Its character stood out in every facet of him, so much so that I could not help but name him “Grampa Tom.” My paternal grandfather was a big man, over six feet, broad-shouldered even as an old fellow at 90, weathered face handsome as an Irish face can be. And there I was living in a place with a rock among rocks that was so familiar I was charmed that I could name it.

Where I live now, a female osprey sits early mornings on a snag tree within view of my front window. She is always alone, sometimes wrapped up in herself in rest, usually watching over all she surveys. I would like to think that when I walk out in the morning to say hello to her, she knows I’m there. I figure she sees me but doesn’t care; I am not food. She makes that eerie but lovely scree-sound of ospreys; to my mind calling for her lover. I know that ospreys mate for life but are apart each year because they migrate as loners, not as partners or in flocks. They are supposed to meet up when they return to their nesting area in the spring. My theory is that something happened to her lover, her mate, her husband, and she is alone here, screeing for him each dawn. Her name is Saba, Queen of the Morning.

In my past I have named trees in yards, a “Clem,” a “VA,” an “Ellen” and a “Jeannie,” all in different yards and all for people I loved who died on me. I have had brief-lived fleurs that I’ve named – “My Little Pal” after my husband died – it was an Echinacea whose bloom stayed for so long; and all summer long were the “Bloomin’ For Me?” a joke for the morning glory vines (weeds) that unfurled a thousand blooms as they woke up in the mid-morning sun.

Naming things is anthropomorphizing – giving humanness to non-human things. You can love people and you can love plants and objects, and in the absence of various people, I began the intimate business of naming things. In hindsight I see that naming became a habit because it so often allowed me to personify objects to fill in for the coming and going of people in my life.

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