When I was little I hated my name – I always wished I had a cooler name like Samantha or Sarah (I was born in the 80s, and 4-year-old Mary thought these were cool names because if your name was Samantha you could go by Sam just like the character on Who’s the Boss or if you had the name Sarah there was a song about you). Instead I got Mary… and to top it off, my family called my by my first and middle name, so I was actually Mary Eileen.
Mary Eileen is a mouthful when you’re a kid. I had a number of messed-up nicknames from younger siblings and family members: Gam-meen, Marleen, and my personal favorite Mean (that one was from my middle brother, and was fitting because I was pretty mean to him growing up). Finally when I was in second grade my parents allowed me to go by ‘Mary’ in school and not ‘Mary Eileen,’ but it was too late. I went to a small private school at the time and all of the kids knew me as Mary Eileen so I was only able to shake the ‘Eileen’ part with new kids. To make matters worse, my cousin was in my same grade, went to my school and we had all the same friends and he still called me Mary Eileen, so that just added fuel to the ‘Mary Eileen’ fire.
When we moved to Alabama in 4th grade I was able to shake the 2 name curse (at least I thought it was a curse) and from then on people only called me Mary. I still wasn’t a fan of my name, but at least it was only 1 name. There would always be confusion when my mom or dad would call a friend’s house and ask to speak to Mary Eileen. One of the times I specifically remember was when my friend’s sister said, ‘Don’t we have an Aunt named Mary Eileen?’ My old-lady name was never going to escape me.
There were some pluses to being named Mary: people always knew how to spell my name (unless they were 8 years or younger or slightly special and mixed up my name with ‘Merry Christmas.’) and I only met 2 other kids in all of my school career whose name was Mary, so there was never any confusion. Outside of that I’ve only ever met old ladies with my name.
So why such an old name for such a young girl? Well, there’s history behind that. I’m actually named after both of my grandmothers: Mary is on my dad’s side and Eileen is on my mom’s side. There’s a tradition on my father’s side of the family to name the first-born son after both grandfathers – since their first-born was me, a girl, they decided to name me after both of my grandmothers. They carried the tradition on with my middle brother who was named after both of our grandfathers – his name is pretty old fashioned too. I’m English/Irish/Scottish/Catholic to boot so I can trace Mary’s back on both sides of my family for generations.
Mary, my father’s mother, was an amazing woman who lived in London most of her life and married my grandfather, Bill, who was a poor Irishman. They never had a lot of money, often didn’t have a home of their own, but Nana, what I called my grandmother Mary, was a smart woman. She kept the books for local businesses and was able to supplement my Grandad’s income to help provide for their family. Nana was an amazing pastry chef and knitted us sweaters every year for Christmas. The smell of lavender still make me think of her and she and my Grandad used to call me their ‘Little Flower.’
Eileen, my mother’s mother, is quite a magnificent woman herself. She is alive and well, living with my family in Maryland. Grandma, as I call her, is a devout Catholic but in an open-minded way (as I’ve chronicled here) and goes to mass everyday. She helped found the Christian-Jewish Dialogue in Dayton, Ohio and one of her talks was transcribed here. She worked in the Dayton community at the Dakota Center and every year at Christmas she asks that we not give her presents but instead send money to the DC. Grandma graduated from high school, but never went to college. Due to her work in the Catholic community in Dayton as well as her knowledge, she was granted a Theology degree from the University of Dayton and went on to teach theology. These are all the things I know, her credentials are probably a mile long and she’d blush if she knew I was typing this!
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I fully understood what an honor it was to be named after these two amazing women. They both were loving, kind and smart. Sure ‘Mary Eileen’ doesn’t sound cool like Carisa or Skylar, but its cool to me and my family! So at some point, as an adult, I’ve started wearing my name as a badge of honor, and not twitching when people say both my first and middle names in public, or butcher the spelling of Eileen. Often I’ll even get a compliment on how pretty my name is, and I usually agree with them and mention both of my grandmothers.
Mary Eileen is definitely who I am . I don’t abhor it anymore – it’s definitely my name and I can’t imagine changing it. My mom told me that if I wouldn’t have been named Mary Eileen then they would have named me ‘Emily.’ I used to wish and wish I had become an ‘Emily’ and thought I even looked like an ‘Emily.’ Today I still think I look like an ‘Emily,’ but I definitely think I look more like a Mary Eileen.