my first name, elena, means light, or the bright one.
it appears my parents knew from my birth that i was made to shine in the dark places.
born to an italian father and a scottish mother, i was given two middle names, each to mark a distinct piece of my heritage.
teresa, from my father’s side; it means summer harvester.
ann, from my mother’s. ann means full of grace.
i am dark eyes and freckled skin, concoction of hot-blooded passion and stubborn resolve. i am hazy august sunbeams on the shoulder; i am hunched-over in the field, hands digging in dirt, crops between the fingers. i am ruth, gathering scraps of broken barley sheaves, clutching them between knotted fingers. i am full of grace, filled to grace; i am full, and so i pour out. grace in, out. in. out.
when i moved to liberia, they said i was an african woman now.
i spoke their language, ate their food, cradled their children. i was declared “mother” and given more names.
in kpelle, i am leela, translated to mean i am satisifed.
in vai, i am massah, a name with a simple meaning: happy.
my personal favorite comes from the bassa language, in which i am named walawa. when i asked piko what it meant, she giggled and gestured to my hips. “it means you got body,” she said proudly.
i am leela, massah, walawa. i am contented smile, fleshy hips. i am languages and cultures and skintones, all weathered from sun and wind. i am thick accents and heavy bloodlines. i am timezones and tradition, stories passed down from the “old country”, generation upon generation of those who lived in the tension of struggle and made it through to the other side.
when i think about my heritage, i think of these, my names, given to me by mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers who saw something deep within me and called it forth into existence. i think of how each name marks me, in a way, marks where i’ve been and where i came from. i’ve spent many, many years wandering and sometimes, it becomes too easy to forget who you really are and get lost in the place you find yourself.
but in the quiet moments, i remember. i remember i am elena teresa ann; i am leela and massah and walawa. i’m the girl with disheveled hair and eyes that speak of what’s in my soul, the girl in blue jeans and an old woolen sweater, swinging in the sunshine with bright blocks of beads around my neck.
and that is my heritage.
*this post was partly inspired by “heritage” over at SheLoves magazine. for more great heritage posts, click here.