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What's in a Name?

As the mother I feel a loss. A sadness. A mourning for the little boy who used to live in the room at the top of the stairs: the one that, despite its feminine accoutrements, once (and still?) belongs to George, namesake of my grandpa whom I adored.
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As we prepare for the beginning of another school year, I turn to thoughts of the one gone by. It was one riddled with complications, transitions and enormous change. This might be a good time to tell you that my daughter Jessie spent the first three and a half months of school -- not to mention the prior nine years -- as George: a complicated, funny, dyslexic and wildly artistic child. In December of fourth grade she socially transitioned from male to female and finished out the year with a seamlessness that no one could have anticipated.

At the end of that eventful school year she, along with millions of other 10-year-olds, brought home an art portfolio overflowing with the work that spanned the entirety of her fourth-grade experience. As we drove home from school that day, I clearly recall her insistence that we close the sunroof to ensure that none of it got sucked up and blown away by the (nonexistent) wind gusts -- she clearly revered the work she had done. I didn't manage to go through the portfolio until a few weeks into the summer, which made me wonder if my psyche somehow knew to review it at a time when I would be able to allow myself the luxury of reminiscing. And by reminiscing, I mean crying, thinking, wondering and (over)thinking.

As I pored over the pile of 9"x12" pieces, I was struck by one in particular. Upon cursory glance it appeared to be an abstract drawing complete with the signature twirls and design of many a project of George's/Jessie's that I have seen over the years. Sketched in the middle is a beautiful, colorful and flowy dress which could quite possibly some day come to life off the carefully drawn mannequin and onto a six-foot tall, 110-pound woman strutting down the runway to the "oohs" and "aahs" of a celebrity-filled audience. To the right of the dress is... what is that? It looks like a delectable chocolate chip cookie with a sizable bite taken out. An incongruous grouping, for sure, but that is pretty classic George/Jessie for you. As I was critiquing aloud, Jessie, with just a trace of disgust in her voice, gently pointed out to me that it spelled George. What? (I was simultaneously thrown by hearing "George" and trying to see what the hell she was talking about.)

And then I saw it as clear as day. It does indeed spell out "George" (which she casually explained was because it was from the beginning of the school year -- how silly of me!) in all its flair, pageantry and beauty. I was initially amazed at how artistic and clever it was (bear in mind, I am fairly easily impressed with works of art -- mostly because I am literally incapable of drawing a straight line, even with the aid of a ruler... it always winds up somehow slanted. Yeah, I know: that has to mean something) and then I got very sad, very quickly. I miss George.

Back in 2001, my husband Rich and I, like all expectant parents, spent a fair amount of time trying to decide upon a name for this baby in my belly whose sex we declined to learn during my amniocentesis (which I had due to my "AMA": advanced maternal age. Ouch!). In keeping with Jewish tradition, we wanted to name the new baby for someone in our family who had died. We had named our older son "Harrison" in memory of Rich's maternal grandfather, Harry, and were batting around the remaining grandparent names for this one. The choices: Esther, Elizabeth, Sadie, Bob or George. We discounted both Bob and Elizabeth: Bob also happened to be Rich's father's name, and although he was quite ill, he was still with us; Elizabeth had been spoken for by my niece, who goes by Izzie. Further, Rich had a thing against the name Sadie (I disagree -- love that name!) but thought George was a cool name. (Note: George was my grandfather and the man who began the tradition that my father would impressively uphold of making every one of his children and grandchildren completely confident that they were his favorite. I will contend to my dying day that I was, indeed, both of their favorites.) I half-heartedly agreed to George, primarily because I was quite sure that I was having a girl (oh, the irony) and was confident that I would have my choice of an "E" name somehow, although I was secretly rooting for Sadie. Alas, the baby was born and declared a boy based upon the fact that he had a penis, a fair pronouncement for sure, and was named George Reuben (my grandfather Bob's middle name). We had the ceremonial bris eight days later and we were off. I had two little boys, Harrison and George, and despite what Rich might tell you, they were not named for the Beatles.

It took me some time to get used to referring to my little swaddled infant by such a grown-up, antiquated -- I mean, old-fashioned -- name, but before very long, it just seemed right. He was this gorgeous little boy, the kind that people would stop me on the street to comment on (this, um, hadn't happened with Harrison, so I was acutely aware of how often it occurred) and the name, I reminded myself, would someday be successfully grown-into.

During their baby, toddler and little kid years, it was virtually impossible to find a mug, magnet or picture frame imprinted with either of my children's names. Occasionally I would happen upon an item with "Harry" (close enough, I guess) on it, but it was, more often than not (and for inexplicable reasons), a shot glass. Finding it funny, I may have even purchased one or two over the years, but as a rule, any items emblazoned with their names were either "custom" made or pieced together with single alphabet letters. It sounds silly, but it all somehow added to the strength of these names that they would do well by as adults ... provided we all lived through their childhoods. They were both kids who never had to use their surname initial in class because there was only one Harrison and one George. End of story. Or not.

As accustomed as I have become over these past few months to calling my second-born "Jessie," I will admit that there are times that I miss not only George the person, but George the name. When I saw this piece he/she had created, it warmed and crushed my heart all at the same instant. My marveling at the artistic skill was trumped only by the sadness in knowing that this piece, in all its uniqueness, is indicative of so much that I thought I knew which is, at least for now, gone. If given the assignment today, how would it look different (aside from the obvious difference that it would be signed "Jessie," not "George")? How would it be the same? I would hazard a guess that there would still be a beautiful dress styled on a mannequin, but I'm not sure if the dress would have the same color scheme or hemline. Would it be as bold and confident? Would it use up so much of the available drawing space on the paper? And I wonder about the psychology of the lettering: the first "G" and the final "E" are so small as to almost be missed ... would it happen similarly with the "J" and "E" of Jessie? I am sure a shrink could (and perhaps will) have a field day with this piece, but as the mother, I feel a loss. A sadness. A mourning for the little boy who used to live in the room at the top of the stairs: the one that, despite its feminine accoutrements, once belonged (and still belongs?) to George, namesake of my grandpa whom I adored.

Now this particular item of "George" memorabilia is prominently displayed at my exact eye level at the desk where I sit with my laptop and ramble on about our social and emotional transition from George to Jessie. Clearly, some days are easier and better understood than others. Today is one of the tough ones. So, too, was the day when Jessie dismantled the circus-themed letters which had been attached to his bedroom door brightly spelling out GEORGE. As it happened, Harrison, ever the sensitive creature, quickly grabbed the video camera to memorialize the event, but unlike this seemingly innocuous piece of school room art, it is hidden away in the bowels of a memory card somewhere and will only need be addressed or even thought about should I actively seek to do so. Oh, I know, I could have hidden this one last obvious vestige of George as I knew him away in a folder -- or, perhaps more brazenly, in the trash -- but instead I, with zero hesitation, have displayed it in such a way as to serve as a constant reminder to mostly me. This is my desk, where I sit and compose on a nearly daily basis making it easy for me to see whenever I so choose. Because it is true: I miss George.