A Rose by any other Name…

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
until now.

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.

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Winter Wander Land

Winter Wander Land

My husband and I both saw it at the same time.

“Good God! The River has a coating of ice!” I exclaimed.

“Wow. It’s been years since I’ve seen that. I remember my dad telling me that he used to drive across the River in the winters when it had frozen solid,” Cliff mused.

I shook my head in wonder,”My Great-Aunt Valeria told the story of how she followed her big brothers across one winter.  When she got to the West Virginia side, the edges weren’t frozen as solid and she fell in and got in trouble for getting wet.”

I remember Great-Aunt Valeria quite well. She was as old as God, but more pugnacious, and she was stone deaf by the time I came along.  I know this because she sat in front of us in church and one Sunday, I dropped my doll on the pew before me. Aunt Valeria sat on that doll which squealed like a stuck pig. She, of course, couldn’t hear the commotion and became quite belligerent toward all the people laughing in her direction. The more she squirmed, the more the doll squealed. Finally, Uncle Floyd, her white-haired gnome of a spouse, ungently pushed her over and rescued my traumatized doll. I was a tyke, but I  knew enough to always fear Aunt Valeer (the hillbilly pronunciation of her name). I don’t think she ever really forgave me. I do remember her telling the story about walking across a frozen Ohio River. She was at least 40 years older than Cliff’s father, so it amazed us both that the wide river that fights its way to the Mississippi ever was shallow enough to freeze in the winter. Today, due to a series of locks and dams, the Ohio River is as wide as a motorway and quite deep.

As we drove past the town he’d lived in and both of us had attended school, Brilliant, Ohio, we gasped simultaneously, “Whoa! The Sand Pit has a covering of ice!” In our youth, when it seemed winters lasted longer with temperatures in the sub-zero degrees F, occasionally the Sand Pit would freeze several feet thick, and the town kids ice skated across that bottomless mini-lake.  No one really ever seemed to know how deep the Sand Pit was, but local legend says that the town hired divers one summer to plumb the depths of this place. I had to think of the search for Nessie when my friends told me about it.  After some days of diving, needing longer and longer air hoses, one diver shot to the surface so fast, he nearly got the bends (so he said). He also said something: something huge had swum past him, with an eye the size of a hub cap. No one really believed his story, but the librarian complained about the run on the “L” encyclopedia with pages dealing with the “Loch Ness Monster.” She whined, “All of them came back with dog-eared pages only about that silly Loch Ness Monster.”

As we sped west along State Route 7, I noticed the mounds of snow–it had snowed over 6 inches in the two days of our visit, but something seemed different about the snow.  It didn’t look the way  I remembered snow from childhood. Suddenly, I realized: the snow glistened, quite white and pure. I realize most folks would assume this is the nature of snow. But when we were children, Fifth Street, Brilliant, Ohio (the street  where my husband’s family’s home sat) had the highest pollution rate in the entire world. Yep. Fifth Street made world-wide news. Why the pollution? Steel mills, coal mines, electric plants, and chemical plants lined both sides of the Ohio River.  The economy boomed. Most families had a steady income from one of the industries; new cars appeared in drive ways and garages. The Ohio Valley provided jobs, raw ores, and steel for the world. These industries also meant that snow stayed white only a matter of hours before the coal dust and pollutants from the electric plants turned it a dull grey.

The fact that I saw white snow drove home the point: the industries had collapsed under the heavy fines levied by the EPA. New laws about pollution changed an entire region from prosperous to poor.  Coal mines closed because the natural veins of the area produced soft, heavy pollutant dust and smoke. The mills had relied on this cheap, easily moved ore. When the mines closed, the steel mills didn’t last long. The new restrictions mandated that hard coal be used, which necessitated changes in the whole internal system of pounding the coal into coke into purer, cleaner by-products. Many electric power plants closed under the onus of Environmental Protection Agency’s stringent new laws.

The farther we drove away, the more I realized how very different things in the Valley had become. I saw closed schools and stores, and noticed the terrible shape of the roads.  I also understood that the last two winters had restored the chilly winds and shifting snows, but these winters were not the same as when I was a child, learning to ice skate on the lakes deep in the woods.  I didn’t see children hurtling down hills on their sleds, shrieking in laughter.

The most telling place for me, though, sat back from the road as we wound our way up from the River toward Woodsfield, Ohio, where my sister and her family live. Each trip we  made when I was younger and going to visit my sister, I always looked for the abandoned house. Some family had left the lovely two-story home abruptly, I suspected. I made up hundreds of stories of how the house looked inside, of why the family had left. For many years, curtains still hung in the windows. Then, as happens to empty buildings, someone threw rocks to break the windows, ala It’s a Wonderful Life. Although my trips to Ohio became less frequent after I married, when we drove up State Route 78,  I still looked for the Abandoned House. Each trip revealed a new glimpse. The kitchen walls glowed a light yellow; a bedroom door hung on hinges revealing rusty walls with faint squares where posters or pictures had hung.   I cried a little the day I saw that the roof had caved in. I knew then that no one would ever live in that house again.

As we crept up the snowy, slick roads all these years later,  I realized I could see the shape of the house! The drifting snow had transformed that sad place into a winter show piece. I wondered: how will it look come spring?  I knew it would be an eyesore. I felt immeasureably sad.

Therefore, I decided to concentrate on the sheets of ice floating on the River. They cannot be mistaken for anything other than they are: thin, ephemeral glints atop a monster moving inexorably toward the Mississippi.  I took out my sunglasses and watched the snow, happy my great-niece, aged 5 will be the exception to my dreary thoughts of how children in the Valley have been deprived. She’ll drag out her little sled tomorrow, grab “Bubba”–her uncle–and they two will go to the bit of a hillside in my sister’s garden, and Jadyn will shriek with laughter, make snow angels, and only see pure white snow.

Oh, she knows about yellow snow.  That color snow hasn’t changed one bit since I was a kid. Bubba made sure his niece understood she wasn’t to touch yellow snow last winter. I grinned as I remembered a particularly nasty trick I’d played on my baby brother with yellow snow. The look on his face made the spanking I got worth it. The little tattle-tale.

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The Curious Case of the Common Cold

I feel like death warmed over.  If you’ve never heard that saying, spend some time in the Ohio Valley near Steubenville, Ohio.  It’s a common, cryptic observation used when people feel lousy.

Do I feel rotten because I am seriously ill? Well it feels serious, but the embarrassing truth lies in a personal weakness.  I actually weather serious physical issues pretty well.  I come of solid, sturdy stock.  When I was about 12, I watched my mother who’d just fallen down a set of over 20 concrete steps and sustained a terrible gash on her left leg, climb those steps with the aid of a neighbor.  He simply held the dreadful gash together as Mom made her way up the Stairs of Demented Laundry Practices.  That “gash” required 75 stiches inside the wound and 150 on the outside. Awful, you say? Absolutely! But it taught me the inner steel of the woman.

At 17, I visited my father’s hospital room after several frantic hours of not knowing anything except he’d been injured in the boiler room of Wheeling Steel in Yorkville, Ohio. (Yorkville, by the way, is the next town over from Tiltonsville, Ohio.  Anyone who loves poetry or football will get the reference to “Autumn Comes to Martins Ferry, Ohio” by James Wright, a famous poem that amazed me the first time I read I knew it captured a sense of my childhood and youth.)

Anyway, I had afterschool band practice, and the woman who provided my way home mentioned casually, “Sorry to hear about Paul.  Must have been a bad accident. Ambulance and everything.” I hadn’t heard anything.  I rushed into the house when I got there looking for a note of some kind.  Some indication of what had happened. Nothing. Nada. Zero. So I phoned my grandparents: no answer. I phoned a close friend and all she had heard amounted to the same nothing. I finally went next door.  All Mae Moore, one of the sweetest and most generous women that I knew, could only repeat the gossip.  She could tell me that Mom had run out of the house, pulling my brother with her and they’d peeled out of our gravel drive without a glance for other cars. That alarmed me. Mom’s driving had legendary status.

Finally, after two hours of worrying and impotence, she came slowly into the house. “Twana. I didn’t leave you a note, did I?”

Wow–that did not sound like Mom at all.  She never admitted she had neglected to do something obvious.

“Is Dad okay?” I asked.

“He will be.  He’s a strong man.”

The truth terrified me.  A pipe conveying superheated steam had burst, catching Dad in the chest. The weather, in the low 30’s F, meant he wore layers and layers of warm clothing.  Although he worked in the boiler house, he spent a great deal of time out on the landing and barge platform on the Ohio River, coping with incoming coal, and outgoing steel.

All those layers kept him from dying instantly, but they also absorbed the hot steam/water and kept the scalding fluid on his body.  He’d been shipped to the hospital in Martins Ferry–the place where Mom had given birth to us 3 kids.  When I finally saw him, a wire cage over his bed kept the sheets from touching his scalded body. He grinned at me, “Boy, the devil had me marked yesterday.  I’m good though. These ladies,” he gestured at the nurses, “are taking care of me.”  He’d already become a favorite.

He came out of that episode with minor scars, and no pain meds that I knew of.

S0–sturdy stock seems a bit of an understatement, huh?

I myself went through multiple surgeries on a destroyed ankle.  I’d slipped off a curb and shattered the blighter.  I rarely complained, although I discovered I am not a woman to get hooked on prescription pain killers. They gave me the personality of a rabid Tasmanian Devil. I snarled, I snapped, I lost my temper multiple times daily. Then one of the doctors happened to mention these rare side effects.  I might have turned into a witch, but I didn’t complain.  My husband nipped my self-pity in the bud when he observed, “You know the doc said on a bell curve, you’re in the tiny ‘worst that I’ve seen’ part.  If you’d slipped and broken your neck and had the same kind of odds, you’d be paralyzed and I would have to deal with a wife who couldn’t turn her head.”

Leave him to give me a dose of admittedly harsh reality, but a good reality check nonetheless.

So, when I say I feel like death warmed over, I expect most folk think I have a terrible disease, or have hurt myself again. Nope. I have a cold. My head hurts, my throat burns, my nose drips, my body aches from the coughing, and I can barely see my eye color due to the bloodshot whites and red swollen eyelids.

I think of the amazing surgical magic my orthopedist did on my ankle. I look at how long older people live and suffer because technology can take care of an array of treatments. I think of organ transplants and brain surgery, AIDS research, and controlling typhoid, malaria, and the Bubonic Plague.  Then I wonder: what’s the deal?  Why can’t they kill the common cold? Why haven’t they inoculations to prevent getting one?

I watched the aging film, Independence Day last night–how do the valiant citizens of earth wipe out the invading aliens? They use a virus–probably no more complicated than the common cold.  And didn’t the old The Day the Earth Stood Still  destroy the invaders with the common cold? 

So, I’m going to square my shoulders, brush my unwashed hair, change out of pj’s and face facts. There is nothing common about a cold.  It’s just a soothing name for a nasty bug capable of wiping out alien invaders. I’m ready, governments across the globe. I am strong. I am brave. I am infectious. Call me, heads of state, if an alien invasion happens in the next couple of days. I’ll happily sneeze on them and therefore prevent the use of nuclear weaponry.

Mom used to tell me, “You’ve plagued me all day.”

Little did she know, my body took that as a call to arms. When cold germs swarm, I usually do not fall ill.  When I do, though, I know my cold is the worst cold in the world and I should die from it–and come back warmed over.  That just makes me wonder. How does anyone know exactly how that feels?

Lousy cold, I grumble, selfishly ignoring my husband and sons who have far worse symptoms.  I’m just going to Google “death warmed over.” I know someone, somewhere has the details of how this is worse than a cold.

Excuse me while I sneeze.

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I Begin a New adventure

I activated my new Android smart phone yesterday.  I entered a realm of fascination, fear, and frustration. Whoa, baby! I read the booklets. I did the step-by-step process of getting Google by following my husband’s directions as he read them off the computer. So, I now know that I have an interesting list of credits to my name, including recognition for reading segments of a book published in the 1980’s. Wow. Thanks Isaiah, where ever you are!

However, success was fleeting.

I struggled to get a Facebook account set up because, hey, I want just once to see the cute little icon that indicates “mobile” under my status. I don’t want to stay stuck in the-er-last year.  When did this mobile stuff become so “gotta do it”?  I fall asleep (hypothetically because I don’t sleep well) and when I wake up, there’s a new wrinkle. Or handheld device that controls peoples’ every action, it seems.

I got used to the ubiquitous Blackberry when it became crystal to me that my husband had to have it up and running all the time.  I must admit that watching him answer email while we waited in line to view the Electric Light Parade at Disney World seemed excessive.  Still his is a tough business, so I am working at accepting that “thing” with the widgets and its sort of a phoneness.

Now my new phone? It’s way cool.  That’s because it looks like R2 D2 of Star Wars fame.  My son and I were on a high after immersing ourselves in the celebration of the 30th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back. The celebration absolutely awed me. We got autographs, we got tee shirts (naturally), and we got to see George Lucas himself at THE MAIN EVENT.

So–not long after the furor died down, my son got an email about the ultimate droid phone. It’s a real deal android, with Artoo’s white and blue markings.  When it rings–or more accurately, when it is telling me someone wants to talk to me, I get Artoo squeals and beeps and raspberries.  As of today, I also have a voice telling me, “Number 888-555-1212 wants to speak with you.” That’s unnerving.

I also cannot figure out how to repeat actions, like the little video clips from the Star Wars films. Weird.  But that whole thing it says about being a phone I can figure out “intuitively”: don’t buy into that.  I consider myself an intuitive woman.  There is nothing intuitive about this whole process.

I’ll figure it out. I’ll bug my son until I do.  But, ya know, it is very cool to have R2-D2 right to hand.  I wish he were a bit bigger, because I’d love for him to open car doors and stuff.

The next adventure is how to figure out this site.  I really hope I haven’t written this in vain.

Hello, my name is Twana and I’m technically challenged.

And–may the Force or some other benign power (like God) be with you.

Scratching my head,


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