where the writers are
Names to Live By

When I teach the research-based second-half of my class and the students spend a few weeks delving (or skimming the surface, or treading water, or doing any number of things other than delving) into the history of genocide, the one terrible fact of it all that strikes them the most is the idea of entire generations of family members being wiped out—erased from the earth, along with names, birthdates, family stories, traditions, quirks, inherited traits, hopes, dreams, and all of the layers and layers of history that make an individual who they are, or who they will become, or how they will be remembered. For the most part my students come from backgrounds where family ties and family history are tremendously respected and valued. A student might come from the bleakest of backgrounds and had to overcome unimaginable obstacles, and they might have trouble gathering their thoughts and writing an analysis of an essay just read in class, but sit them down and ask them to write about themselves, or their families, and the stories come pouring out, ripe with details and love, and peppered with the faces of generations: elderly wise grandmothers, hilarious aunts, and tough uncles. 

They are always appalled when they realize that genocide means more than “just murder”; that it means wiping out entire family lines, and reaching out and destroying neighbors and friends and communities, until there is no one left to remember. This is a chilling, tragic thought, and only when realizing the magnitude of what this might mean can my students really understand how terrible genocide truly is. I think they got it--most of them, I hope they did.

And thinking about that somehow became twined around a memory I recalled this weekend when I thought about my grandparents. I remembered how a long time ago my father looked up from a book he was reading to remark something about a tribe somewhere who believed that the dead lived again when their loved ones spoke their names out loud into the air, so that the sounds of their names would fall on the ears of those who loved them just as they used to do and, in the process, their spirits would return, albeit briefly, to the world again. This is a beautiful idea, I think; that in speaking the name of someone we love, someone who has passed away, we carve out a little space for them to exist again next to us. 

I remembered my father's remark when I thought about my grandparents this weekend and about all the stories of their lives I grew up with, those stories overlapping others, and filled with people whose names were spoken with love, or humor, or sadness, and who had stories of their own to give out. I realized I’ve been hesitant to talk much about my grandparents with the kids, out of fear that my own sadness, still so fresh, will alarm L., or raise uncomfortable questions in T., who has already started to question, in her lisping sweet voice, heavy matters of life and death. But tonight I told T. a story about my grandmother and she listened while she played, and I spoke my grandmother's name, and felt the space around me lighten and grow warm.