My name is Sally and my life is just one long chain of stories, one after the other. I really don’t believe that I could even consider my existence or my consciousness or my being without doing so in the context of one story or another. In fact, one way or another, the stories surrounding me have to a very large extent colored my perceptions of the world and of myself, and have developed along with me until they pretty much are me.
Here’s an example: When I was very little, maybe four or five years old, I got the idea that I’d been adopted because an elderly couple visiting my parents kept asking me to tell them my real name. (“What’s your real name, little girl?”) They did this when my parents had left the room to prepare coffee service for the visit so that, finally, by the time they’d left, I was convinced I was not really Sally Donlon, but someone else altogether. That I was not my mother’s daughter nor my father’s daughter, nor my brothers’ siblings; that I was, in fact, a foundling. Or, at the very least, that I’d been adopted.
About a year later, embroiled in a row with my mother, I spat out: “What do you care? I’m not even your daughter!” This really enraged my mother, who set about graphically detailing all the particulars of my birth in an attempt to prove that I was, indeed, her daughter. Then, my mother asked me where I’d gotten such a crazy idea and I had to remind her about the visit that day a year ago with the nice elderly couple. My mother had never heard them ask the question or else had not taken much notice of it, but those four words – what’s your real name? – had seared themselves into my hippocampus and I knew that I would never forget the sound of the lady’s voice, soft and sweet, as she asked them. When I repeated the question, slowly, so my mother could feel them in all their horror, she looked at me quizzically for a moment and then threw back her head and laughed.
This turn of events was hard to take, and angered me even more that I had been when I’d blurted out my revelation. By this time, I was also confused. Finally, my mother got control of herself and told me the story of when my father’s mother, and my namesake, had returned from charm school, having reinvented herself, much like any modern woman of today. The year was 1891 and my grandmother was 18 years old. Sarah had grown up in Arnaudville, Louisiana, in the countryside, and had been called Sadie all her life. When she turned 16 years old, her father packed her off to New Orleans to learn how to live in the city and to become and elegant lady. Sarah took him to heart and returned calling herself Sally because that was considered the proper diminutive by her uptown friends. She would not answer to anything else and continued walking if addressed as Sadie. She was now Sally.
Even so, folks in those days understood that whether she called herself Sadie or Sally, she was still Sarah, and that anything else was simply a nickname, a vanity. So that when that sweet old couple who had known my father’s mother in their youth asked me that simple question, it was simply that: a simple question. They wanted me to say Sarah because that was what Sally really stood for, to their minds. Nothing sinister. Nothing untoward.
However, I was Sally – just Sally – and had always been. My birth certificate, which my mother made a point of pulling out to demonstrate my provenance, clearly said Sally, and it also clearly featured the names of both my parents. Even though I have always hated to lose an argument, I was very glad to see that document.