Author’s note: This story arose from a period in my life when I was thinking about relationships between women within families, especially intergenerational relationships⎯between mothers, daughter, grandmothers. It led to the discovery of several secrets from past female antecedents that question identity and relationships today. The confluence of all of this was the arrival in my head of the title character’s voice⎯clear and distinctly unique⎯musing on these very topics.
A Rose by Any Other Name
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet
Romeo and Juliet, Act II Scene II, William Shakespeare
I GUESS YOU’RE WONDERING WHO I AM. I’ve been wondering that myself. My birth certificate arrived in the post today. Annabel Shoshana Smith. Born: April 3, 1982. Mother: Rosemary Shoshana Smith. As expected, the box for my father’s name is blank.
Rose—my grandmother—said my mother didn’t want my father (whose first name was Ron, I found out later) to have any claim on me if he came back. Not that he ever did, not even after my mother died. “A no-hoper,” Rose said. I’ve always called my grandmother Rose. She said it made her feel younger, that being reminded she was a grandmother depressed her.
Anyway, back to the task at hand. Now that my birth certificate has arrived, I can fill in the forms that have been sitting on my kitchen bench for a week. Change-of-name forms.
You see, I’m recently divorced. Currently, I’m Annabel Butterfield. A lovely name, Butterfield. In hindsight, I think perhaps it was the name I fell for, not the man. Pity. Now that he’s remarried and has little twin Butterfields on the way, it seems rather lame to keep it.
The question is, though, which name to change back to? This is not my first divorce. Butterfield is my second husband’s name. My first husband’s surname was Pritchard—very English and proper. Like him. I certainly don’t want to revisit that.
But I balk at going back to Smith. So ordinary. It reminds me of roll call and nicknames. Smithy, Smitho, Smelly-belly- smith. I don’t want to be that braces-wearing, pigeon-toed girl again. I’ve left that all behind. The funny thing is, a year or two following my first divorce, after some careful cajoling on my part and a couple of shots of Irish whiskey, I found out my father’s surname from my grandmother. She laughed as she told me.
“Ron bloody Smyth,” she chortled. “Smyth with a y!”
How unfair is that?
My girlfriends were less than helpful. My attempts at a discussion on the matter at my impromptu divorce party two weeks ago largely failed, probably on account of the quantity of champagne being imbibed.
“Take a famous actress’s name—from the past,” Stacy said.
“No, make one up,” said Ash. “Like Daylight, or Seagull.”
They started giggling. Stacy slopped champagne down the front of her blouse.
“How about Butthead?” she said, spilling more champagne on the floor. “Or…”
Angela interrupted her. “Just go without a surname—like Madonna, or Pink.” She reached for the champagne bottle and refilled Stacy’s glass.
Only Lucy, my best friend, could see I was serious. She pulled me aside, out of earshot of the others.
“Have you considered taking an old family name? There must be one you like.”
I’d been pondering that idea the morning after the party when Jane, my flatmate, made a comment that stopped me in my tracks. I’d said I was considering O’Reilly, my grandmother’s maiden name, given that she’d raised me from the age of three.
“And,” I added, “it was her mother’s name, not her father’s. I like the strong female vibe of taking a female ancestor’s name.”
Jane was leaning against the kitchen bench, eating yogurt from the tub.
“True, though…” She paused and licked the spoon. “There’s an argument that all surnames are male. Your grandmother’s name, O’Reilly, her mother’s name—it’s actually her father’s name, isn’t it? Your great-grandmother’s father’s name?”
Damn. She’s right. All surnames are male. Passed on to women by fathers or husbands. There are no female surnames, at least not in this culture, unless you make one up. So, I put the forms away, and now I’m back at square one. I check the time. A quarter to twelve. Time to get to the hospital. I’m running late. I leave the forms on the bench and grab my keys. Perhaps Rose has some suggestions.
SHE IS SLEEPING AS I ENTER HER ROOM. I pause just inside the doorway, taking stock as I do each day. There is her spare bathrobe, slung over the chair. Her overnight bag, full of clothes for me to take home to wash, her toiletries bag, hairbrush and glasses on the table by her bed. Today, though, I see something different. A leather satchel, a little smaller than A4 size, lies on the floor by the bedside cabinet. It is old and looks homemade, the leather lacing cracking around the edges. It looks strangely familiar, but I cannot place it. Then I remember, I have seen it before, in the bottom drawer of the wardrobe in Rose’s bedroom in her house, where she keeps her sewing kit and through which I’d occasionally rifle looking for old buttons or bits of ribbon. For a moment, I am disoriented. I shake the feeling off and slip back out to the tearoom, where I make a coffee from the automatic espresso machine. It’s awful, and at first, I only drank it for something to do, but lately I seem to have become addicted to its curiously metallic taste.
As I walk back into the room, Rose opens her eyes. Her skin is parchment pale. I can see the blue veins underneath.
“Annabel,” she says. “I have something to show you.”
The exertion of speaking sparks a coughing fit. A nurse
glides in. I can’t watch. It’s a problem I have, confronting unpleasant truths. Probably why I’m twice divorced. I want things to be OK; otherwise, I’d rather not know.
You live in the clouds, Rose would say when I was little. You have to learn to face up to things, or they’ll knock you down.
“I’m all right now, Annabel—you can look.”
She hasn’t lost her sense of humor. That’s good, but as I turn back to face her, it’s clear she’s more tired than yesterday. She pats the bed and I half-sit on the edge, not wanting my weight to impact her in any way.
“Have you come to any conclusions?” she says, not without effort. “About a name?”
I try not to let my anxiety at her frailty show on my face. She doesn’t like to see that kind of concern; it offends her in some way. Poor man’s pride, she once said to me after I’d done something she didn’t like, something that made her feel small. That admission was her way of apologizing. I look away and fiddle with the corner of her bedsheet.
“I thought perhaps O’Reilly?”
She looks at me, an eyebrow raised.
“By all means, though—if you’re going to the trouble of choosing a name, make sure it means something. Don’t pick one by default—that’s just being lazy.”
“It’s your name,” I say.
“Yes—well,” she says, leaning forward. “Speaking of which…”
She coughs again, a long, drawn-out spasm. This time I stay put, perched awkwardly on the bed. After she recovers, she looks at me for a moment and then says, “I’ve made a discovery, albeit one rather late in the day.”
“My satchel,” she says, pointing down to the floor beside the bed.
I reach down and pick it up. It smells of stale boot polish and old newspapers and dust. I stifle a sneeze. The latch is stiff, and I tear a thumbnail opening it. It is full of old documents and letters, tea-colored with age.
“The envelope with the airmail pattern,” she says.
I place the satchel on my knees and take out the envelope. It is not sealed. Inside are three folded sheets. The first is a marriage certificate. November 1943. London. Bride: Mary O’Reilly. Groom: Jozsef Telmann.
“That’s my father,” she says.
The second is a birth certificate. Rose pushes herself up higher in the bed and leans closer.
“Look,” she says. “Look at what it says.” She waves her finger at the document. “Shoshana Telmann, born May 17, 1944. That’s me. I never knew. My mother said Shoshana was an old family name, so I gave it to…”
Her eyes fill with tears.
“…your mother as her second name. Then Rosemary gave it to you, as yours. She liked the way it sounded.”
She sits forward, her hands animated.
“I didn’t know. Shoshana is me. I’m not Rose O’Reilly. I’m Shoshana Telmann.”
She lies back down again, her breathing more pronounced. After a moment, she says, “So strange to find this out now, at the end, that the name you have—that the who you thought you were—is wrong. That it’s a lie.”
She points at the satchel still open on my lap.
“Letters. From Mary and Jozsef. I couldn’t read them. You can, if you’re interested. I find I’m not. The time to find out has passed for me. All those years wondering. Now it’s too late.”
She closes her eyes and rests her head against the pillow.
“I’m tired. Come back tomorrow and we’ll talk.”
SHE WAS TOO WEAK TO TALK THE NEXT DAY, and for some days after that.
“She’s deteriorating,” the doctors said. “It won’t be much longer now.”
Each time they’d said that before, she’d rally, but even I can’t pretend now.
Sitting by her bed, I reexamine the papers. The third document is a divorce certificate. 1949. Rose would have been five. Pinned to it is a newspaper cutting. An obituary. Jozsef Telmann—1962. The year before my mother was born.
Among the papers are some letters tied up with twine. I open one and begin to read.
When I get home that night, I search online for Jozsef’s grave. I find it listed in the Jewish cemetery at Rookwood. Mary O’Reilly is there, too, in the Catholic section. I’m not sure why, but I decide I have to see them for myself.
ROOKWOOD CEMETERY IS HUGE, and I’m terrible with maps. I wander around for most of the morning, my energy fading, until I locate the Jewish section. There is a simple headstone: Jozsef Telmann, 1919–1962. Beneath this, a Star of David and an inscription in a language I can’t read, then—“Beloved Husband of Rina, Father of Ruth and Isaac.” So, he married again. There are plastic flowers in the vase. I’m relieved my grandmother cannot see it. That she has a half brother and sister won’t matter to her now. She’s right. It’s too late.
It’s a long walk to the Catholic section. Mary’s grave is in the lawn cemetery. 1984. The year before my mother died. I feel a curious sense of déjà vu. A memory of being carried. With Rose and my mother. I must have been very small, less than three. I glance at the grave next to Mary’s. It’s my mother’s. How come I didn’t know it was here? I hear my grandmother’s voice inside my head.
Because you avoid everything unpleasant, Annabel. I’ve warned you, it comes back to bite you.
I drive home in a daze. How is it I’ve never given any real thought to my mother’s death? About where she was buried? Or, come to think of it, much about her life? Something like shame passes through me.
My phone rings. It’s the ward sister.
“You should come in,” she says.
At the hospital, I hover outside my grandmother’s room
while they attend to her. She’s drifting in and out of consciousness.
“How long?” I say to the doctor.
She’s noncommittal. She touches my arm, a light but firm touch. Her eyes are kind.
“If you need to say anything to her—anything particular—now is the time. She’ll need sedation soon. Once we start that, she won’t be able to respond.”
IT’S EARLY WHEN ROSE WAKES. I’m not sure if she knows I’m here. Her voice is surprisingly clear.
“I saw him once; I remember now. My mother took me to see him. He was in a park. I must have been about ten. He was thin and tall, with a beard. My mother said he was an uncle, but it was him. Something about him was familiar.”
I lean in close so she can hear me.
“They divorced,” I say, ‘but they loved each other. The letters…”
She’s drifted off again. I sit down, the letters crumpled in my hand.
I’ve read them all, night after night, waiting for Rose to die. I’ve been practicing saying it: She will die. I’ve watched how the nurses answer the questions anxious relatives ask at the end. Yes, he/she will die. They’ve learned the art of not flinching when the time for platitudes is over.
I know Mary and Jozsef’s story now, as much as anyone can from the bits and pieces left behind. She was an Irish girl, working as a nurse in London. He was a Hungarian refugee who escaped to England just before the war broke out. He joined the British Army and served in the Jewish Brigade. They met while he was recovering from a minor shrapnel wound to his leg. She became pregnant and they married. They immigrated to Sydney after the war—for some reason separately—Jozsef in 1947, then Mary and the baby a year later. From the tone of their letters, they had hope then. I can’t tell what changed, but there are hints. Mary mentions deciding not to convert. Jozsef writes of his renewed faith in God. Then nothing, just the divorce papers, and a letter transferring their house into her name. The grounds for divorce are listed as drunkenness and desertion.
There is another letter. This one is still sealed and is more recent, dated 1984. It’s addressed to Rose. On the envelope after the name Rose is the word Shoshana in brackets. I turn it over in my hands, then tear it open.
My dear Rose,
I hope you are reading this in a forgiving frame of mind. It’s not in my nature to ask for it, but impending death has a way of changing one’s habits. There are a few things you should know. I loved the man who was your father, but we were not compatible. For more reasons than mere religion. The divorce papers state he was a drunkard and left us, but it is not true. I left him. It was the only way to procure a divorce. He was very kind. I changed our names back to O’Reilly. An Irish name was easier than a Jewish one in Sydney then, though barely. I’m sorry you could not see him again. I know he loved you. He named you Shoshana, after his mother. It means Rose. And you are. A beautiful rose. I know I have not been a mother comfortable with endearments, but there it is. I love you, my darling, my Rose.
Your mother, Mary O’Reilly.
I wonder how it can be that Rose hasn’t read this. That she hasn’t even opened it.
In the morning, she stirs. I take her hand.
“I have something to tell you,” I whisper. She murmurs something inaudible.
“I’ll read it to you.”
And I do. I don’t know if she understands or can even hear me. When I finish reading, I kiss her cheek.
“I love you,” I whisper. “I love you, Shoshana Rose.”
I brush away tears. I never allow myself to cry, but today is different. She doesn’t release my hand, and for a moment I’m convinced she has squeezed it. Then the sensation is gone. Her breathing becomes labored. A nurse appears. Her eyes are gentle, but steady.
“You don’t have to stay,” she says. “I’ll stay.”
WHEN IT’S OVER, I head home. Jane is out. There’s no one to greet me, not even a cat. Perhaps I should get a cat.
Lucy has left a message on the answering machine.
“Have you decided? On your new name?”
The name-change forms are still on the bench. I’ve filled in everything except the desired name. I like that description. Desired. I pick up the pen and write in my name.
Rose. That’s it. I now know who I am.
I am Annabel Shoshanna Rose.
Alison Thompson is an award-winning writer from New South Wales, Australia. She was selected for an Art Omi: Writers Residency (Spring 2019) and is a member of the Kitchen Table Poets. Her chapbooks Slow Skipping (2008) and In A Day It Changes (2018) were published by PressPress. Her poetry and stories have appeared in journals and anthologies internationally. Website: alisonthompsonpoetry.wordpress.com.
Delmarva Review publishes evocative new prose and poetry selected from thousands of submissions annually. Designed to encourage outstanding writing, the literary journal is nonprofit and independent, supported in part by a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. The submission period for the next issue opens on November 1. See the website: www.DelmarvaReview.org.