Names

By STEVEN E.F. BROWN


The United States government named my grandfather. He was born in 1920 in a rickety roadside shack in "Grubtown," a tiny hamlet in rural Arkansas that no longer exists. I've been there in both summer and winter, trying to get a feel for the land he grew up on rolling green fields cleared out of the surrounding pine and hardwood forests along the Little Red River. I've hiked down to where, as a boy, he strung fishing lines between trees across that river, suspending six or seven hooks in the water and checking them all night by boat. I've looked down from a bridge where he and other barefoot boys dangled their feet and watched baptisms. As an adult, he, too, was baptized in that dark green, fast flowing stream. I've walked in meadows he crossed going to school a mile or two away in Pangburn, the nearest town, population six hundred something a collection of a few stores, churches, houses, a high school, and a senior citizens center.
In nearby Henderson Cemetery you can learn that some of his stillborn siblings weren't even named at all, or, like Paul Dean, were only named posthumously.
My grandfather was called "R.C." after his grandfather, Richard Clinton Doss. In his teens, when he first applied for a job through a New Deal work program for high school students, he bumped up against the government, which told him initials weren't enough. Government forms required names.
"Who you named for?" the man in the application office asked.
"My granddaddy."
"Well, what was his name?"
"Richard Clinton," my grandfather told him, and the man wrote on his forms. But when the documents came back from Washington they said Robert instead of Richard. Rather than fight it, he became Robert Clinton McCourt, and has used that name for nearly seventy years.
His grandmother, too, was renamed by the U.S. government. Her name was Maggie Joyce, and that's what everyone called her all her life. Family members knew Maggie was short for Magdalene. But county records in Arkansas list her as Margaret Joyce, because a clerk somewhere assumed that's what Maggie must be short for.
My grandfather, now eighty-two, has undertaken the task of marking all our family's graves, replacing the simple rocks that mark most plots in humble country cemeteries with engraved headstones. On several hot and humid afternoons ("It ain't gonna rain today," he says, sniffing. "It ain't sultry
enough.") he has me drive him around White and Cleburne counties in his enormous Buick, directing me with a sunburnt arm and fingers gnarled like tree branches through crossroad hamlets like Joy and Romance and Rose Bud to clearings in the forest where farm families buried their dead. He wants the memory of these people to endure after he and his generation have passed on.

 But in his quest, he has sometimes been stymied by names.
Most members of my great great grandmother Maggie's generation were barely literate or completely unlettered. It didn't take much reading and writing to scratch a living from the red Arkansas dirt. Maggie's gravestone spells her name Magalene, without the D, because that's how people in the family spelled it on the rare occasions when they wrote it, and my grandfather chose to honor that spelling.
Maggie's brother, Alexander Joyce, for many years the jailer and custodian of the White County Courthouse in Searcy, was known all his life as A.Z. Joyce, the two initials coming not from the spelling of his name, but from its sound Alex-zander.
Maggie's second husband was Wiley Hines McCourt. His gravestone reads Wylie, because my grandfather couldn't find out which way his name was spelled. Now, he tells me, sitting one day over a three-dollar lunch in Bobby's Family Restaurant, a fifty-year-old diner across the street from the
courthouse in Searcy where A.Z. worked, he thinks "Wiley" is the correct spelling. But that's just the point. There is no correct spelling. Before ubiquitous literacy, a name was just a sound, and no one bothered about how to spell it. But modern memory is written, which is why I spend so much time trying
to learn and write my grandfather's myriad memory stories. Unless those names are transformed into written language, they and the people they identified will be lost, like the names of tiny towns I pass on winding rural roads with my grandfather when I visit, towns never named on any map, known only to the farmers who came in to the country store or to the church there. Places like Grubtown and Lickskillet don't exist anymore they are just overgrown cemeteries in the lush Ozark forest, quiet communities of headstones serenaded by trilling cicadas and warbling katydids. On the stones there you can read the fading names of the people who built these towns, good Arkansas names like Earl and Audley, Lowell and Carthel, Phen and Ollie, Leona and Arbie.
Around them in the dappled sunlight falling through the trees are the graves of those whom memory has eluded, marked only with rocks. Their names were only sounds, unsaved by the magic of writing, which slipped away on the wind.
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The author teaches high school English at Drew College Preparatory School in San Francisco.