Last week in my blog post, I wrote about how an Indonesian writer, Norman Erikson Pasaribu, impacted my life through his short story, So What’s Your Name, Sandra?
I wrote: “My identification on so many levels with the main character, Sandra, who is Indonesian, supersedes our cultural differences. We are moms who have lost our sons to suicide while we still live and defy the natural order.”
In the story, the author elaborates on the ramifications of the main character who, after losing her son, is forced to change her name. Norman writes:
“Names were a baffling matter to Mama Sandra now. “Mama Sandra”—no one ever used to call her that. Her relatives back in Harianboho had called her “San” or “Sandong.” The people she’d met when she moved to Bekasi called her Bison’s mother, Mama of Bison—“Mama Bison”—submitting to the nationwide norm of calling a mother by her firstborn’s name.”
Prior to reading this short story, I was clueless about this cultural norm. If I were forced to live as “Mama Marshall,” it would feel like a “kick me” sign is permanently tagged on my most vulnerable parts.
“Mama Bison.” “Mama Marshall.” Initially names of endearment turned topsy-turvy into a scalding tirade of distress—and every day we mourning mamas dare open our eyes, it’s Groundhog Day (reliving the same nightmare every day). Paradoxically, after I discovered this Indonesian name custom, a ray of gratitude pierced through my 16-month grief cloud. The “short” story makes me think “long” range, beyond the tip of my nose-grief point, about every Indonesian mourning mama, AND mourning mamas in similar cultures, that are hot-iron branded. These mamas fight hard to open their eyes and when that dreaded ray of sun penetrates, it’s Groundhog Day.
Shown in the excerpt below is another layer of the complications that derive from the Indonesian name custom for Mama Sandra. Note, too, how the excerpt, like the rest of Norman’s descriptive writing, illustrates his precise wordsmith engineering.
“…And since Bison’s father was of Sinaga stock, of course that made her son a Sinaga too. Then her husband had run off with another woman, and all that remained was her, the solitary Borneng, with Bison her Sinaga son. The Sinaga sweat and tears that had gone into that boy’s blood didn’t amount to a shallow bowlful. Oh, but never mind that. He’d stay Sinaga for life.”
To repeat what I said earlier: “My identification on so many levels with the main character, Sandra, who is Indonesian, supersedes our cultural differences.” I don’t know if Mama’s Sandra’s ex-husband ever saw his son; perhaps, at the end he viewed his cold steel-like body. I do know that my ex-husband did not see his son, who carried his last name, for nine years. He reunited in front of his son’s corpse at the funeral home. I do believe that, although it didn’t justify a nine-year drought, the disguised sweat and tears that my ex-husband shed that day, did amount to much more than a “shallow bowlful.”
Now, all the commonalities I share with Mama Sandra has fed me with faith and a high flow of oxygen to push through the solemn tunnel of my final chapter. In fact, when I recall her grief, it helps me to not feel painfully alone, which was the coping mechanism I used when I wasn’t allowed to register my son’s car under my name at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). The rude staff member, who not only neglected offering one condolence, wouldn’t accept my identification and comprehend the fact that I as an American citizen had lived my life with two different first names. I, in fact, submitted a stack of paperwork as evidence. Finally, a supervisor materialized in an attempt to break the deadlock. The supervisor, a piranha in disguise, didn’t extend one condolence either. She simply barked and badgered me to what boiled down to the question why I had “Stacy” on my driver’s license and “Anastasia” on my birth certificate.
I pushed through the ordeal, remembering co-partner grieving mama, Mama Sandra, under interrogation. In the exchange of dialogue in the short story, Norman writes, “What’s your name? Let’s hear your name.”
Coincidentally, the exchange at the DMV went something like this:
“You legally changed your legal name Anastasia.”
“No, I was a minor. ‘Anastasia’ was forced on me. To say it in a softer manner, it was Americanized to ‘Stacy’ in second grade at the public school I attended, and the DMV, as well as the Social Security Department, ‘adjusted’ the name accordingly.”
I felt humiliated in the same way I had as a child, a first-born American of two immigrant parents. I had to face the raw reality once again. I did not change my name to hide my ethnic identity and assimilate to the American culture; those higher up, starting with my second-grade teacher, took the responsibility on themselves. As much as my identity was ripped from me, the new name “Stacy” was a relief to me as a child. It freed me from the bullies who shadowed me at grammar school mocking the name “Anastasia.” These bullies were the Priscillas, Sues and Johns of the world who kicked Anastasia, not to the sidelines, but off the field entirely.
Anyway, back to the scene at DMV, where we were all raising our voices and getting nowhere. I had brainstormed a solution to the name dilemma, but the bottom line was, even if I presented notarized paperwork stating that I was the same person (Anastasia and Stacy), the supervisor insisted she would not accept any such evidence. I was beyond upset, salt in the wound, and it wasn’t just about the impasse in resolving my identification in order to register my son’s car under my name. It was about forcing myself repeatedly to eyeball my dead son’s death certificate through the process. It was about the tears spilled on route to the DMV, remembering when I took him for his driving test when I was silently sad because he knew, like I knew, his car fanatic, MIA father, should have been with us. It was about recalling that my last visit to DMV was when I had a real life strapping, healthy, handsome son. In fact, the man I was sent to initially to register my dead son’s car under my name was the same one who had been so kind and shot my driver’s license photo three times, before I approved it. In those days, my greatest grief was growing old.
I left beat up, and the sadness inward busted outward as an angry inferno. All I heard was my now deceased mother’s never-give-up voice, and I didn’t. One week later, I traveled to another DMV in another city with the same evidence that now included a notarized document that the piranha supervisor at the other DMV insisted was unacceptable. This time the woman at the desk immediately offered her condolences. Then perusing the paperwork, she glanced around, asking, “Who’s Anastasia?”
And, so the same—different name dilemma started, but this time when the personable supervisor appeared, the first thing she did was offer her condolences. Her sincere tone touched me deeply and my ocean of tears under my skin dripped.
Upon accepting the notarized paper, she replied, “We’ll make it work.”
Ten minutes later, my tears now dried, I almost fainted in relief when the teller presented me with the new license plate for the car and one less son-related trauma ever to be forced to revisit. Before I left the DMV, the staff woman, motivated by compassion, gave me a tutorial on how to order a vanity license plate commemorating my son in the future. This time upon exit I bawled again, because kindness from total strangers in my life is so rare and scarce that I feel guilty and unworthy when I encounter it. On the same token, I vacuum up every bit of it. I’ll happily take it like a pain reliever, because kindness from strangers is an elixir that helps me also cope.
I walked away realizing how I would change all my “Stacy” names on my documents into my birth name, Anastasia. How I can’t take my son back, but I can take my true identity back and try to replant the severed foreign roots in a way that maybe they would grow healthy. After all, if Mama Sandra could brave her name, so could I. I remembered, too, how my son loved his name, as we all did. How he was named after a prominent millionaire and how beautifully American it sounded.
“It sounds like a General,” someone once commented about his name when he was a child.
Of course, a moniker is only a tidy identity. What matters is how we define ourselves and how generous we are at valuing ourselves. We can pay a heavy price getting caught up in name games and putting up fronts and not have the emotional strength to stand by our faults, because, like pores on skin, our human imperfection is part of our makeup.
Regardless of his high-powered sounding name, my son felt like a misfit. At his age, I, Anastasia, felt the same way. Aging, anguish and a decades-long journey of living in a 12-step program has made me build muscles out of pounds of flab. That’s how I see the main character, Mama Sandra, in Norman’s book: muscling her way on the bicycle of life where scammers have pulled the training wheels from under her, and the only thing she has to rely on is her faith muscle that helps her never to stop pedaling despite every single bruise, scar and backseat driver that says, “You can’t,” because you know you really can’t, but refrain from revealing the truth to your fast moving feet powered by the faith muscles in your legs.