A Rose by
Any Other Name
I have railed against my unusual name forever, it seems. My hate
affair with my name began when my little brother couldn’t pronounce it. His slaughter of “Twana” became the family nickname: “Tawny.” I
actually preferred this bastardization of the strange five letters constituting my given name on my birth certificate. Someone else had similar difficulty with “Twana” and produced, “Twana Tweeze.” My father often called me that, the imp of fun darting in his eyes since he knew I’d respond with furious intensity, “My name is TWANA. You gave it to me, why don’t you use it?” I may not have liked it much, but I began defending the integrity of its pronunciation almost as soon as I realized my name didn’t blend in. It stuck out like an exotic hibiscus among the mundane roses of my peers’ more common names.
Born in December of 1951 into a sea of little girls who had dead-boring names like “Mary Jo,” “Linda Kay,” or “Becky Lou,” my parents really loved the small, unusual name they engraved on their miracle child’s life. No, I do not jest. They called me “our miracle baby.” Mom had given birth to my older sister eleven years earlier. Despite trying diligently for another child, Mom hadn’t conceived and carried to term another child for ten years, although she and Dad wanted more kids. Then, one slip on the back steps, and nine or ten months later (the timing is iffy…just goes to show that nothing in my life from the very beginning would go easily), poof! Mom gave birth to me. I often teased her, “You know, Mom, other kids were found under a cabbage leaf or brought by a stork. Saying I arrived because you fell down the
back steps just doesn’t have the sweet innocence of how we find babies.”
Mom and Dad had decided early in their marriage to give any offspring
unusual given names since Dad’s surname of “Brown” littered the hills, dales, runs and hollers of that part of Ohio. Five John Browns lived within two miles of his mailbox. They had not come to this determination without precedent. Dad’s own mother had named her daughters “Goldeena” and “Isabelle” so they weren’t clumped in with the Marys, Maisies, and Janes. My older sister’s lovely name Americanizes the French pronunciation “Angel”, named for Dad’s mother, an immigrant from Belgium. I loved her name and even though it wasn’t common for her peers of baby boomers, she rarely had difficulty with someone mispronouncing it. She says she lived with the usual idiocy of other children massacring her name: one classmate inverted “Angel Mae Brown” to “Devil June Red.” I suppose no matter what our name is other kids will find ways to jeer at it.
I recognize Mom and Dad’s reasoning. That did not mean I embraced
it. When people ask about my name, I grin with fierce intensity and explain, “Well my maiden name is ‘Brown.’ Mom took one look at me in my crib and decided my homeliness meant I’d never get a man and therefore get married and thus changing my dirt common surname. So she dubbed me ‘Twana.’ I, however, did indeed marry, and due to an eagerness to shed ‘Brown’, took my husband’s surname, ‘Biram.’ I felt
I’d outsmarted Mom. I realized within weeks of marriage, however, I now had to spell both my given name and my surname, as ‘Biram,’ with its innocent five letters caused more nomenclature anarchy in my life. The correct pronunciation is ‘Bye-rum.’ People usually go with ‘Beer-am’.” Then I stop, and pause in my little rant before I add, “Yep. Seems like the Good Lord just wanted me to stick out in any crowd since ‘Biram’ is the Anglo-Saxon version of the original ‘Byrum’ brought over from Normandy with William the Conqueror and his crew of language-slaughterers; it means ‘One who goes down to the cow byre.’ That designation makes me wonder if these Byrums had come to the British Isles as common farmers. Now, however, the name is anything but common.”
I must admit after I’ve decimated anyone who might have just
innocently asked, I ponder my response. I often see that I’ve launched a
metaphoric nuclear missile rather that a kinder tiny rock from a slingshot. Most of the time, I don’t have time to ameliorate my reaction as the person I’ve just dazed with my vigorous silliness either has run the other way, or is backing carefully in another direction, family members collected and protected from this crazy woman, Twana Biram.
When I feel mellow, though, my answers to queries about “Twana” intrigue rather than terrify. I smile and say, “I was named after an
American Indian missionary to her own tribe, Twana Hawk. My parents had met her and heard her story of faith while attending Camp Meeting (a hallelujah-praise-the- Lord-come-to-Jesus gathering of like-minded Christians out at Hollow Rock). Mom and Dad found her words and work so inspiring, they gave tithe money to support Twana Hawk for many years as she spread the Gospel to her own people. Mom said after meeting Ms Hawk, ‘If I ever have another daughter, I am going to name her ‘Twana.’”
That is actually the truth of how they chose my unusual name. Years ago, while I struggled with very painful life events arising from my refusal to play it safe and keep my mouth shut about an unjust cause, I became extremely depressed. I swallowed my reluctance and started seeing a shrink. After several weeks of working with me, he finally said, “You know, your unique name helped form your personality. From a very early age, you began fighting for recognition and rejecting attempts to turn you into ‘ordinary.’ You fight for causes because
your psyche has fought for the integrity of your name—which you have demanded others accept—since your earliest memories. You are unusual, interesting, intriguing, and uncommon largely due to being named ‘Twana’ in a time when most parents gave their children names that demanded little. ‘Twana’ demanded much.”
To be honest, this guy never came close to my real pain, and since
I was smarter than he was, I misled and misdirected our sessions so that I never gave him a chance to really help me. However, that one observation felt like a blow to the head by a two-by-four plank. I have spent much of my life daring the bullies of the world, be they hulking cousins picking on much smaller kids on the school bus, or calling out a group of social studies teachers for their hypocrisy, or carrying signs in anti-Viet Name marches, or facing down a southern magistrate in the middle of the American south for his blatant bigotry.
I have managed to get post graduate degrees during my middle age years through sheer stubbornness and anger at the injustices posed for
“nontraditional” adult women.
I took stock of my life after hearing Dr. Big Dummy’s statement. I
suspect I probably would have been a socially aware hell-raiser even if Mom had christened me “Mary.” Still, I had to see the justice and insight Dr. Big Dummy had pointed out. That evening, I phoned my mother.
“Nu-lo.” Mom always sounded as if she were winding up a music
box when she answered the phone.
“Hey, Mom, I know this probably sounds stupid, but thanks for
naming me ‘Twana’ instead of Debbie or Jeannie or Barb,” I said. A long pause made me roll my eyes at the ceiling, wondering what the blazes I thought I was doing.
Then, “You’re welcome. I always loved that name.”
I can’t say that I have embraced being a Twana wholeheartedly
since I still have to spell out both names any time I meet someone new. I still trot out one of the two versions of how to say my names and what their significances are depending on how grumpy I feel when the conversation begins, or if the vibes seem truly interested.
I’ve only met two other Twanas in my fifty-nine years. One was a
check-out girl at a grocery store. We laughingly exchanged a short empathizing conversation. The other Twana made me believe life’s synchronicity astounded at times. The cosmos has a reason, Dr. Saga, and Mr. Gandhi, and Dr. Jung. One of the most amazing experiences of my life came via an historical aircraft, the B-17 Bomber, my husband’s all-time favorite planes. He did a twenty year career in the Air Force, and had wanted to be an aeronautical engineer from the age of
eight. He says deprecatingly, “I had to settle for just being an engineer
because I couldn’t spell ‘aeronautical’ when I applied to college.” He has always loved airplanes.
To my shame, I can recognize with any degree of accuracy only four
aircraft after that twenty year stint. But we fell in love with “The Aluminum Overcast”, one of a handful of operational B-17s. So, as a birthday gift a few years ago, I set up a trip to Spokane, Washington which culminated in his getting to fly as a passenger in this gorgeous silver bird. We got to the small airfield early to get photos without crowds of people around her. As Cliff explored the plane, I fell into conversation with two couples who were my parents’ ages. Boeing Aircraft had assembled the B-17s during WWII. As I chatted
with these lovely folks, one of them Betty , “We’re here for our friend over there. She worked on the assembly lines for four years during the war. She never got to go up in one, though, so our church has collected money to get her a ticket.” She pointed to a silver-haired pixie wearing one of the special jackets only available to the club composed of those who have flown in the AO. Her spry interest got her into
places no one other than non-crew member ever saw.
As she stepped with buoyant pleasure back to her friends, her
gorgeous smile a mile wide, I read her name tag. “Twana.” When I told her my name, she shook her head, “There just aren’t co-incidences in this life,” she laughed. “You obviously are my soul sister from another time.”
Tears stood in my eyes as I took in the wonder of her words. We belonged to an elite little group of women in the world who soared through life as “Twana.”
Then, just last week, I accidentally typed my name in the Google
Search. I have a number of listings and they make me smile, but to my shock, the first hit said, “Twana Tells.”
Huh? What had I told that made it Google-worthy?
Twana Tells, an up-coming DJ out of Atlanta, Georgia, is making my
name famous. Her show pulls in amazing ratings, and she doesn’t sound like a bad person. But…
Here is the kicker: all my life I have struggled, laughed, and
explained my name. I thought I hated it. I thought, “Boy, I wish Mom and Dad had named me just about anything else.” However, I had a secret, deep-seated pride for this five letter name. I am not enamored of a disc jockey making the name famous—and popular.
So, I guess, “Vanity, thy name is Twana.” I didn’t have a clue
Juliet said it best:
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.