My Last Name, Timeless Rhythms, and the Grace of Memory
Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
One of the first things I told my husband when we moved from Alabama to Wisconsin this year was, “I feel like we returned to a place of rhythms.” There’s something about living in a state with real seasons that draws rhythm out of sameness, but we also needed to shake off the sameness of over a year of pandemic isolation. Twenty-twenty felt like the year that disappeared into timelessness, and even though my family has made some big changes, 2021 threatens to do the same. When I think back on things that happened, oh, just last year, I’m often shocked to realize that what I’m remembering actually took place two years ago—or more. Rhythms of life are returning, but my memories seem rather muddled together.
What has happened since January of 2020? I struggle to remember, and I find myself asking God if he will redeem these months—not just of the terrible loss of life in our country and around the world, but also if there will be any redemption for the loss of time and the process of building memories. What will my children remember about these months, and how will it shape them? What will they remember of a mother who had no idea how to parent them through a pandemic? Will God restore the years the locusts have eaten?Sometimes… because our lives are hard… we’d rather shed our former selves like an old skin, but when we come to the end, we will find ourselves to be the sum of them all.
A little over a year ago, right in the thick of 2020, I was contacted by author, songwriter, and pastor Eric Schumacher with a request: would I read and endorse his novella, My Last Name? I am choosy about my endorsements, but the manuscript was short enough to read in a day, so I said yes with some trepidation. What I discovered in reading Eric’s excellent work is a story that has continued to help me process not just the grief and disillusionment of these last several months, but diagnose some of our current cultural ills, as well.
My Last Name is a compelling contemporary novella that tells the story of 95-year-old Lottie Barnes, and in it are a lot of promises about God’s faithfulness for such a time as this. Lottie has lived a full life with some typical, and not-so-typical, ups and downs. She has loved and was loved, lost loved ones, and has persevered through hardships in a way women of her generation often do—with remarkable strength and humor despite often shocking losses. The story comes to the reader in fragmented, nonlinear fashion as Lottie, the narrator, draws the memories to the surface of her struggling mind. The past is clear and sharp for Lottie, but the present is fuzzy, like trying to grasp smoke in her hand. Lottie has dementia, thus Schumacher’s delivery of the story as a nonlinear narrative.
Due to life circumstances, Lottie goes through a few name changes (hence the title of the novella), but she never ceases to be any of the people she was before, as the unfolding of her memories and the patching together of her story reveal. Of course, this is true of all of us; this is the grace of the turning of the days of our lives—of the rhythms that exist even when we don’t feel or see them. We don’t lose one day of who we are. Sometimes it’s a severe grace because our lives are hard and we’d rather shed our former selves like an old skin, but when we come to the end, we will find ourselves to be the sum of them all. As well-known fantasy author Madeleine L’Engle once wrote, “I am still every age that I have ever been.” We are, as we have been since the day of our inception, of infinite worth and value.
When I spoke with Eric about his story back in 2020, I mentioned how important it was for this sort of story to be written now, when so many elderly people were (and still are) suffering and dying of COVID. When so many Americans are either unaware of the risks to their elderly family members, uncaring of them, or of the belief they can beat the odds. Competing beliefs about how to best protect the American “way of life,” it turns out, has left little room for protecting the most vulnerable in our society.
In light of recent scandals, we’ve had movements, motions, and efforts to push us to consider what women and girls are worth—all worthy, needed, important steps in the right direction! But the pandemic has shown us that we still care very little, as a society, for the elderly. This is where Eric’s story asks an unasked question: What is the value of an old woman’s life? The answer should be that it is incalculable. And Schumacher invites us into a day (and a lifetime) with Lottie Barnes to show us this truth through story, through empathy, through love.
Sometimes stories are best situated to move hearts and minds to action, and My Last Name is such a story. It evokes compassion, raises awareness, and reminds that “grey hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.” The old among us are not dispensable, they aren’t resources to use and discard, they are every part of us we have ever been, and we should value them more highly than we value ourselves. My Last Name tells a story of a season of seasons. By the end, you’ve lived a lifetime in a day with Lottie Barnes—you are richer for it; hopefully you are also wiser.
I’ve been rewatching Doctor Who this summer, and as I’ve reflected on My Last Name, I can’t help thinking about the death and regeneration of the Eleventh Doctor. If you’re not familiar with the show, when a Doctor dies, they regenerate into a new and different Doctor, and it’s sometimes difficult for them to retain memories of their old self. Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor’s death/regeneration was particularly poignant as it came at the end of a thousand-year-long vigil-like protectorate of a town called Christmas. As Smith’s Doctor is dying, he says,
We are all different people all through our lives. And that’s okay. That’s good… So long as you remember all the people you used to be. I will not forget one line of this. Not one day… I will always remember when the Doctor was me.
It’s a beautiful sentiment, even as we know that value, worth, and agency are not tied to memory. Memory is unreliable, as Schumacher obviously points out in his story. Lottie’s past memories are sharp, but she is confused by her daily routine. And she would have value, worth, and agency even if she were to forget everything.
But memory is still important. If it wasn’t, Alzheimers wouldn’t be such a tragic disease, and we wouldn’t mourn when people lose their sense of self to dementia. I think this is why I so deeply cherish the Eleventh Doctor’s words as he faces his death and regeneration. In his desire to remember—to “not forget one line… Not one day”—we see the value the Doctor places on the mundane moments. The Doctor is near-immortal and could easily devalue such things as mundanity, but he demonstrates how—at the end—it all becomes precious, frozen in time.
Even the mundane memories shape us. Sometimes our memories stay with us like scars smoothed over and healed, sometimes like calluses that make us stronger, sometimes like flowers that bloom every year. Some people have memories that are more like wounds. But our memories, however they come to us, help form us into the person we will be at the end of our lives. They are part of that person who will be that person who is all the persons we’ve ever been. They are a grace to us because even when life feels formless, God is forming us. He formed us in the womb; he’s forming us still. He promises and is able to “not forget one line or one day,” and he will restore all things. Our memories are more than what we remember—they are the rhythms of life, and if God is the giver of life, then maybe we can also say that our memories are rhythms that tie us to the eternal.
(Elyse Fitzpatrick and I interviewed Eric about My Last Name for The Worthy Podcast. You can catch the episode here.)