My friend, Jan, wrote a story about her name that made me wonder, what’s up with my name? In What’s in a Name I addressed my penchant for changing my names, but not the how and why of my name.
My name is Margaret Mary Elizabeth. My parents gave me the “Margaret Mary” part and I chose the “Elizabeth” part for my confirmation. You had to choose a saint’s name. I should have chosen Joan of Arc, but in 7th grade, I wasn’t thinking ahead well enough to make that choice. When I give my full name, invariably, someone wise-cracks, “Sounds like a nun’s name.” Yep, it does. Nun here, though! Wishful thinking on the part of my mom, absolutely. She confided in me once that the life of a nun would have suited her well – all that reading, sitting in silence, no worries about taking care of kids, grown parents, time to think. She idolized nuns. However, she also admitted that the priests were the ones with the life of leisure. The nuns still had to cook, clean and maintain themselves on a pittance, albeit in a community of presumed like-minded individuals.
An oft-heard comment upon hearing my name, “Oh, what a lovely good Irish name.”
So, where did this lovely Irish name come from? My maternal grandmother, born in County Limerick, Ireland, is the forebearer of my name. She was Peg, as I have become. To be honest, I don’t think my grandmother had a middle name, and if she did, I never heard it. Can I live up to my name? It is so long since I’ve even thought of my grandmother, and the sources I have to draw upon are so fuzzy, that I am not really sure what I have to live up to.
My grandmother, Peg (Margaret Liston), came to America like many Irish, on her own, alone, and headed for Texas, where her sister was living. Don’t even ask how she got to Texas (seriously, I can’t answer). Somehow, Peg made her way to Chicago, where she met my grandfather, a hard-nosed, hard-drinking Irishman by the name of John Corrigan. He’d arrived in Chicago in 1920, and they married in or around 1930-31, but I am not sure of the exact dates.
My grandmother put up with him, my grandfather, even though we knew she went months without speaking to him. Both of them were hard-headed. Both of them suffered the fate of hard–working immigrants; they became moderately economically successful for a time, but seemingly miserable in their marriage in the process. My grandmother worked for Swift Meat Packing in the Back of the Yards, and my grandfather as a mechanic for the CTA (ironically, he never learned to drive and rode the CTA his whole life, all of us in tow). Peg and John earned enough to buy a house on the Southside of Chicago. They also, apparently, were savvy enough and saved enough to buy a three-flat, but when their son, John (the Irish are not particularly creative when it comes to names) got diabetes, suffered a coma, and then died quite young, they lost everything paying the hospital bills. Thus, when I was a child, my grandparents lived with us in our Southside Bungalow.
My mother worshiped her mother, but she did have some differences of opinion. For example, when I was in first grade, I hated school. Wearing those scratchy Catholic school uniforms made me itch, and I hated the smell of school–all that spoiled milk. I did like the reading, but I could read at home. My grandmother, who noticed that I seemed to read just fine already, told my mother that she should let me stay home until I felt ready for school. She didn’t hold much with formal schooling, having reached only the 6th grade herself. She suggested that the fight to get me to school wasn’t worth the struggle. Maybe she was right, but my mom resented such advice.
When I wanted to get my ears pierced at sixteen, my grandmother was the one who offered to take me to Ford City, behind my mom’s back, to get the deed done. She held herself to her own standards. She was quick with her tongue, smart, and compassionate. She apologized, in her way, to my mom about the ears. She only wanted to make me happy, she said. She thought I’d feel left out by all the other girls. Her compassion encircled many. I remember her taking the train often to Joliet to see a cousin who was in jail, for armed robbery, I think. She was the kind who brought him food, pictures and news. She felt some degree of responsibility for him probably because she put him up when he came from Ireland.
She had a habit of that – my mom recalled that her whole childhood was spent sharing her room with cousins just off the boat from Ireland. My mom’s best friend and cousin, it turns out, would be one of those boarders. My “Aunt” Peg (see, we all have the same name) was really my second cousin, my mom’s first cousin, and more importantly, my mom’s soulmate.
Do I live up to my namesake? It is hard to say, in part because each of us are women of our time, pulled and pushed by different forces. I’d like to think that I am hard-working, compassionate, and smart, like Peg Liston. Memory does funny things when it comes to recalling the failings of the long-since dead. I can only hope that my own namesakes, if any, remember me with generosity and (re)vision.