Catholics have traditionally chosen saints names for their children. One grieving family in Brooklyn, 1914 chose to honor their lost son instead.
In the front room of my maternal grandparents’ apartment on Seeley Street, there was a sagging gold armchair and a wardrobe with a distinct list. On a table hidden behind the door sat an old Remington, shrouded in plastic.
My family also lived in Brooklyn, only a 20-minute drive from my grandparents, but because they were up the block from Prospect Park, visiting Windsor Terrace felt like a trip to the country. When the weather was too harsh to go outside, we (my sisters and cousins) clustered in the otherwise unused front room. The wardrobe looked as though it might have been magical, but turn the bony key, open the door, and all that greeted you was a row of musty coats and a whiff of mothballs. The typewriter, though...
Already a writer by the age of eight, the typewriter intrigued me. I’d lift the cover, which crackled like a cough, settle my fingertips into the curve of the keys and wait for lighting to tap the crown of my head. It never did. Years would pass before I learned that a story’s beginning is not gifted, but chosen. So back then, I’d tap out the one word I knew for sure would accompany anything I’d write. With my index finger, I struck the keys and watched each silver letter of my name step forward.
My Irish name
I am the middle daughter of three, the only one with blue eyes and a distinctly Irish name.
Since childhood, I’ve been interested in Irish history while neither of my sisters were. An Irish name is hardly a prerequisite for this of course, but for me, Kathleen served as hands on my shoulders turning me towards a country I’d never seen.
Kathleen also belongs to my mother, two first cousins, a first cousin once removed and two great-aunts in Ireland, one on either side of the family.
When Catholicism took hold in Ireland, it brought with it a tide of St. Catherines, popularizing the name. Catherine became Caitlín in Irish which was Anglicized first as Cathleen and then Kathleen. There is no K in the Irish language. The name means pure.
My older sister was supposed to be the namesake but my mother changed her mind and Kathleen came to me instead. When asked how I got my name, this used to be my answer. Though I could go all the way back to St. Patrick gesturing to the shamrock.
I don’t. The story of my name begins with Edward’s death.
Edward was two years, seven months and twelve days old when he succumbed to scarlet fever, in a Brooklyn tenement, on March 17, 1913.
His father, Joseph McNally, the grandson of Irish immigrants, was born in Brooklyn in 1888. He worked as a machinist at the National Foundry Company in Williamsburg, until he lost his hand in an accident. After, he would become an elevator operator in Kings County Hospital, in Flatbush.
In 1910, he married Ellen Broderick, whose parents were from Ireland. Ellen grew up in Ossining, NY, one of seven children, six girls and one boy. The family lived near Sing-Sing, the prison on the Hudson that gave rise to the expression ‘up the river.’ At dusk, Ellen and sisters would walk up the road to stand outside the prison wall and listen to the convicts sing. All their lives, the Broderick girls would move in tandem. Ossining to Manhattan to Brooklyn.
After Edward died, Ellen would sit in a chair and scream, for hours. Eventually, her sisters came to her and told her to grieve so was to go against God. Cry, and He will give you something to cry about. Ellen never shed another tear.
Thirteen months after losing Edward, Joseph and Ellen had a daughter. They named her Edna. Edward’s sister. Edward’s namesake. But since Edna is not a saint’s name, the Catholic Church forbade it, and so she was baptized Elizabeth Mary.
My grandmother - Edna
Edna McNally was my grandmother.
By the time she was fifteen, her father was too sick to work and so she dropped out of school in order to support her mother and six-year-old sister. Edna was, by then, already dating Jack Perry. They grew up in the same Bed-Stuy neighborhood, though in those days, the parish was the tag. Theirs was St. Ambrose on Tomkins Avenue.
Once, Edna went out on a double-date as a favor to a girlfriend only to return after midnight to find Jack sitting on her stoop, where he had been for hours, waiting for her. Jack, a quiet man who sang more than he spoke.
Edna and Jack married in 1937. Three years later, when she was expecting her first child, she developed appendicitis. The doctor said the appendix had to come out or it would burst and she would die. The baby could not be saved. Edna refused surgery, choosing instead to pray to St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes.
The baby was born in November of 1940. Edna named her Judith. Today, Judy is 78 years old, a retired teacher, the wife of a late New York City firefighter, mother of five, grandmother of seven.
Six years later, my mother was born and then four years later, Edna was having her third baby. The pregnancy was difficult, the outcome uncertain throughout. She turned this time to St. Gerard Majella, patron saint of expectant mothers. Her son, Gerard, a father of three, died too young at fifty-eight.
My mother, the middle child, is the only one Edna never thought she might lose. As she was being wheeled out of the delivery room, the nurse asked Edna what she was going to name the baby.
I don’t know how often Edna thought about the brother she never met, but certainly she sympathized with her mother, whom she cared for and supported for more than forty years. Still, Edna never cared much for her own name. She said so. When she signed her name, it was always some variation of Edna Mary, Edna M, or E.M. Perry. Edna hardly dweled on the mix of fear, gratitude, and obligation, which led to Judith and Gerard. Naming a child is an act of imagination, of possibility. Edna and Jack must have discussed other names, only to set them aside, when they had to.
What are you going to name the baby?
“Kathleen,” Edna answered, and in the telling, she’d add, “Because I loved the name.”
“Oh, don’t just call her Kathleen,” the nurse answered. “Call her Kathleen Mary.”
Edna would always laugh when she got to this part and then say, “So I did!”
Did a priest actually refuse Joseph and Ellen McNally’s request to baptize their daughter Edna? Edna’s younger sister was Doris, which is also not a saint’s name, but the nine-year age gap seemed a sufficient explanation. Different parish. Different priest.
I rewrite the role of Joseph and Ellen’s priest over and over. A stern priest who says firmly that the middle name ‘Mary’ will not suffice. Another who suggests a reversal, Mary Edna. A kind priest, who advised the McNallys not to dwell on their loss. A priest who thought they should not burden a little girl with the name of her dead brother.
Saint Edna who?
Edna is not the same name as Edward, the way Patricia is a female form of Patrick or Josephine comes from Joseph. Edward is of Anglo Saxon origin and it means wealthy guardian. Edna is a Hebrew name that means rejuvenation, delight. But the least likely scenario is a priest who nixed the name on the grounds of etymology.
There is a Saint Edna.
Google asks, “Did you mean St. Enda?” Indeed, most of the references to St. Edna are misspellings of St. Enda of Aran, who was man. In Illinois, there is a parish called St. Edna but about the woman herself, there is little.
“She was an Irish saint who lived near the River Shannon. She succeeded Saint Hilda as abbess of Whitby.” – Catholicism.org
“St. Edana (also Edna and Eidyn) lived near the confluence of the Boyle and Shannon Rivers in the sixth century. Her name means “little fire.” She received the veil from St. Patrick himself.” -Antiochian.org
But in 1914, with no way to be summoned by a keyboard, the Abbess of Whitby remained hidden in books.
Piecing together family stories that belong to those long gone is an act of gathering fragments. I’ve come to wonder if, perhaps, Joseph and Ellen never did ask. If they simply baptized their daughter Elizabeth and but called her Edna in defiance of those who told Ellen not to grieve so hard. It was well-intentioned advice, certainly given out of genuine concern. But maybe in choosing to hear the first syllable of her son’s name in her daughter’s, Ellen was saying, No. I will never stop crying. I will never stop calling him.
Name as grief. Name as prayer. Name as offering. Name as gratitude. Save her, save him and this is what you I will give in return. Only once did Edna choose a name for its beauty. Name as song. Kathleen Mary, my name, a bequest.