Monday, September 1, 2008


The tradition in my family—one that goes way back to Eugenie Flannery, the first Flannery to set foot into the annuls of recorded history—is to name members of the family after other members, ones whose traits were respected, and that you wish your child to have. It must have been hard at first. Everyone was called Eugenie for a couple of generations, and I always thought that was a little sad. What if—as my great aunt Patrice continually alluded to—Eugenie was a harsh, sour woman with nothing but contempt for those around her. I always thought bad for my first ancestors, having to name their kids after someone quite horrible.

But then, time led its merry dance, and the name Eugenie disappeared, to be replaced by Carlotta, Genevieve, Francine and Terri. The strange thing about my family was that babies inevitably came out female, and that those particular females married late in life, and kept their maiden names. My grandmother, Yancy, often tells me how proud we Flannery women are. She often tells me stories of a particularly cheeky streak of Flannerys, who came about just before the First World War. One Henrietta Flannery was by all accounts the ringleader, and her gang consisted of various sisters and cousins: Louanne, Dahlia, Regina, Wilomena, Dot, Queenie, Jennifer, Xena and Olive Flannery—these are the names my grandmother can remember. They caused quite a stir in their home town, rousing out about until all hours in a time when women were supposed to be demure and unseen after dusk.

But this is not to say all Flannerys were troublemakers. You may have heard of The Flannery Singers, a whole set of my relations who toured North Africa during the Boer War to entertain the troops. The Flannery Singers were a huge success, and the members of the troupe—Carlisa, Mary, Cordelia, Rochelle, Clementine, Patsy, Barbara, Patti, Sally-Anne and Bernice, went on to great singing careers of their own after the war.

A number of Flannery women also served in the war, with no less than eight becoming decorated field nurses. Among the thirteen Flannerys who were involved in combat, ten survived to tell the tale: Pansy, Jo, Wanda, Perpetua, Liliana, Colleen, Trixie, Faye, Elizabeth and Lucinda. Luckily for me that Perpetua survived, as she turned out to be my great-grandmother. Or, more to the point, I turned out to be her great granddaughter. Perpetua was, by all accounts, a lovely woman, which certainly accounts for the 63 Perpetuas scattered through our family tree. She was also a very productive mother, giving birth to an astonishing fifteen children. Six were born before the war: Audrey, Elaine, Betty, Helen, Sharon and Kathleen. Much to everyone’s surprise, after Perpetua returned from the war, she gave birth to my grandmother, Yancy, along with Cordelia, Irene, Jeannie, Carrie, Martika, Angelina, Cora and Prunella.

My mother, Juliet, remembers her childhood fondly. Yancy had inherited an enormous mansion, and by the time my mother was eight, the mansion was filled by various Flannerys from both near and afar. On any given day, Juliet would walk out the front door and be confronted by scores of different playmates. On one day, she would find all her first cousins: Sue, Isabelle, Winifred, Nancy, Antoinette, Lorraine, Charlotte, Doris, Joan and Katarina. On another day, it could be second cousins: Phyllis, Alice, Tricia, Lou, Liliana, Florence, Danielle, Chantelle, Juanita and May.

I was the last born of ten daughters to my mother. First came Veronica, then Annette, then Suzette, then Irene, then Belle, then Mercedes, then Faye, then Yvette, then Danielle, then Marie, and then me. For some reason, my mother had immense trouble in choosing my name. I was, by all accounts, a striking child, whose eyes seemed older and wiser than they really ought to be.

At first, my mother thought I would be particularly feisty, so she tried out monikers of my wilder ancestors: she went through Hilda, Estelle, Sarah, Josephine, Rosette, Connie, Carla, Jean, Ilene and Juanita, but none seemed to fit. Then she thought I would be a born leader, so the names of the most distinguished Flannerys were tried: Zoe, Christine, Marie, Paula, even Pansy, after the famous Pansy Flannery, the first woman to trek to the South Pole unaided. But then one morning I must have become softer, more gentle, and the names of the nicest Flannerys were tried on me: Anya, Francesca, Rayleen, Lynn, Evangeline, Michelle, Elaine, Evelyn, Eunice and Kate. Evidently these didn’t fit either, and even the least-used Flannery first names were given a try: Emeline, Lulu, Pearl, Glynis, Ethel, Sheree, Jenna, Debra, Dolores and even Ronette.

Still, nothing seemed to fit. So my mother spent days and days poring over our exhaustive family records, searching for a name that seemed right. Each night she would return home with what she thought was the perfect name for me. At first, she settled on Betty, but then the next morning she was out the door before breakfast, only to return that evening shouting the name “Natasha!” at the top of her voice. Inevitably, her enthusiasm faded, and she spent all the next day on the phone with various Flannerys who were hiding in various corners of the world. The consensus, arrived at after hours of debate, was that I should be called Cosette. It was my oldest sister Veronica who shattered the family’s happiness, pointing out that a certain Cosette Flannery had been gaoled in 1976 for assault on the Mayor with an air rifle.

Hopes dashed, my mother set herself to bed, and would not come out for anyone. In a hunger-induced daze—she told us later—the name Justine appeared and went. By the fourth week of my life, I still had not received a name, and the other members of my family, not quite knowing how to refer to me, had started to ignore me completely.

It was my youngest sister Marie who solved it. She had started referring to me with a scrunched-up face and a little “hmm” sound, as if my name was rolling about in her stomach and wouldn’t come out. One afternoon, Marie had finally perfected hula hooping, something that all the rest of our sisters had already done. The only person who would be impressed, she knew, was me. So she called me: “Hey, hmm Flannery! Look at this!”

My mother, standing at the kitchen window, suddenly screamed. When we all turned to look at her, expecting blood gushing from her hand or a spider on her head, instead what we saw was her laughing. A smile had spread across her face like warm sunshine. “That’s it!” she shouted to us. “That’s it!”

And that is how I got my name. The best name of the all. Flannery. I am Flannery Flannery. Pleased to meet you.

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