While I’m sure I heard my name many, many times in the first four years of my life, my earliest specific memory of hearing myself addressed brings to mind the sweetness of a nickname combined with the self-consciousness of growing up. I was either four or five years old. I was coming down the little back staircase that led up to a few small classrooms at our church.
We had moved not long before to Searcy, Arkansas, for my dad to teach at (then) Harding College, and he was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs. Other preschoolers surrounded me as we all jumbled out of class and down the stairs to join our families for the worship service. My dad called out, “Hey, Sheilo-bean!” as I spotted him and jumped into his arms from the second or third step up.
And I still remember, even though I loved him and had no problem with the nickname, saying quietly, “Daddy! Don’t call me that in front of my friends!” I don’t know where I got the idea that my friends shouldn’t hear the nickname, but I felt shy about it and asked him to save it for family only. I don’t remember if that stuck or not, but I remember clearly that moment of asking for my name to be used in place of a nickname, at least in a certain context.
This early memory illustrates how important names are, how what we are called is tied to how we see and understand ourselves.
My awareness of my own name grew over the years, of course.
Children can be funny about names and nicknames. I remember how my last name and a friend’s last name made a perfect target for the boys giving the nicknames, so that Underwood and Bridges became Underwear and Britches for some while in first grade. Now I think it’s pretty cleverly funny how they did that, but back then I hated it.
Even though that nickname fell away by second grade, I began to grow weary of my last name. In elementary school, it seemed that practically everything was governed by alphabetical order. To be last in line or in a seating chart day after day, year after year, was challenging enough that at some point in elementary school I grew convicted that one day I would simply have to marry someone nearer the beginning of the alphabet. In my class the boys outnumbered the girls every year, and we had Allen, Bailey, Ballinger, Barnes, Corbin, Davis, Daughtey—just a few off the top of my head. It didn’t seem an impossible dream.
It took a while to make peace with my first name, too. Until college, I knew of only one other Sheila in my life. So while it wasn’t too strange a name, it did make me feel a little left out. I could almost never find a keychain or mug with my name on it when we stopped in those shops along the highway that sold such things. The song “Sweet Little Sheila” made me self-conscious. And then my sophomore year of college brought “Oh, Sheila” into the Top 40, and the first time I heard it on the radio, repulsed by its crudity, I knew I’d be dealing with a new nickname for a while. I think I would’ve been happy with Sheilo-Bean if I could have traded.
After college I moved to Italy, where people learning my name for the first time found it easy to pronounce, and that was definitely in its favor. But then some began to tell me my name reminded them of Scylla, as in Scylla and Charybdis. The thought of bearing the name of a horrible six-headed monster that allegorically formed one half of “a rock and a hard place”–well, this did not make me feel more at home with my name! It did make me emphasize that there was only one “l” in my name, not two, and I appreciate that in Italian that really did make a difference in the pronunciation!
Rock music and rocks in Greek mythology aside, the further into adulthood I grew, the more my name took on significance and mattered to me.
When I moved to Croatia, I was happy that once again people had no trouble pronouncing my name. I did run into trouble with the official at the police station, however, who was adamant that I could not have two “last” names. When I married, I had changed my name to Sheila Underwood Vamplin. It didn’t matter that that was my name; I was told very clearly that I could not have that name, that their system would not allow it.
At the time, we planned to live most of the rest of our lives in Croatia, and I didn’t want to go through this ordeal repeatedly, so I asked if their system could handle me having two “first” names. For some reason known only to the bureaucracy, that was okay. So when we were back in the States on a trip, I changed my name again, this time to Sheila Carol Vamplin. It was a strange feeling to officially change my name twice in so short a time, and perhaps that experience was part of why I began to think more about my various names.
Contra Juliet’s “what’s in a name?” dismissal of the importance of a name, I found that knowing more about my name really has influenced me and my identity.
My mother had told me more than once that she chose the name Sheila Carol because it meant “Heavenly Song.” I don’t know where she learned the etymologies; I assume she had access to some kind of book of baby names.
And I don’t know how I learned what I learned about my name while living in Croatia, but I have clear memories of thinking about my name, what my mom had told me, and even talking about it with my language teacher, who was also a friend and mentor.
I must have looked it up while home on a trip to the States. This was before we had access to the Internet, and I didn’t have access to many books in English in Croatia. I just know that I had done some research because I wanted to know if what my mom had said was accurate.
What I found, and have found consistently over the years, is that the name Sheila is traced back through two different language origins.
In the Celtic forms, it is believed to have come from the Gaelic Caelia, which comes from a Roman name that means “heavenly.” Our word “celestial” shares the same roots.
What my mom apparently didn’t know is that Sheila is also traced back through Latin to the name Cecilia, which comes from the word for “blind,” and it can even also mean “empty.”
It struck me deeply learning of this double origin of my name. Those years in Croatia were hard years for me, adjusting to a new culture, learning a very hard language, living through a war, and starting a marriage in the midst of all that. I struggled greatly. My faith was challenged, my core was shattered. My identity was blurry at best.
Knowing this about my name became very meaningful. I realized I had choices about whether I would live blindly, or live in the heavenly light of faith. While I don’t recall many specific situations, I do recall the interior dialogue as I would realize repeatedly that I could live into one name or the other, and I wanted so much to live in the light of faith.
I never thought of it in connection with my name until writing this, but I often pray, “Let me see with Your eyes,” regarding people and situations I’m working with. I don’t want to be blind, and while I know I will always have distorted vision, I pray to see as clearly as possible.
It was later, I don’t know when, that I learned about St. Cecilia. Interestingly, her name gets traced to both “heavenly” and “blind” in the literature about her. She was said to have seen angels. She is also known for singing in her heart and has for several centuries been called the patron saint of musicians.
I am deeply grateful for this name, and for the fact that my mother chose it intentionally, and that she told me its meaning. I don’t know what she was thinking when she chose it, or if she had any idea that long before I knew the meaning of the name, I would love playing piano and singing, becoming a music major at one point. And even though I changed majors eventually, I cannot imagine being myself without music as part of who I am.
My maiden name Underwood has also taken on special meaning over the years. Before I ever thought much about the name, I spent hours in the woods, alone or with a friend, walking and climbing trees, thinking and praying.
I still love to walk in the woods and even to climb a tree occasionally. For years it has been my practice, three times a year, to spend a few days at a nearby retreat center where I have acres and acres of woods to walk in, thinking and praying, renewing my spirit. So the woods have become very connected with the Underwood part of my name, even if it’s not on my passport anymore.
And there is more. One year, back in the States, when I was going through a particularly difficult time of grieving lost dreams, desperate to know what my life was meant for, feeling so uncertain of who I was meant to be, I went to a service on Good Friday. In this church, the priest would carry a huge wooden cross down the aisle to the front of the church, and everyone was welcome to come forward for a moment of silent prayer before the cross.
It was not a practice I was used to, but I went, unsure exactly what I was to do but sure that I wanted to be as close to Jesus as possible, and this cross was a way of doing that.
As I knelt there and silently thanked Jesus and also asked him for help, for some understanding of who I was meant to be and what I was meant to do with my life, the words came to me clearly,
“This is who you are.”
I’ll never forget that moment and the clarity of those words. And it occurred to me later that day that I was in fact kneeling “under wood,” at the base of that huge cross. Even the church itself was an old one from the 1800’s, much of the interior crafted from huge wooden beams. It hit home that this is who I am, in a very real way. It is the name I was given and the calling I have received, to live at the foot of the cross, to learn from and be strengthened by the love of Christ, whether or not dreams and plans come to fruition, and no matter where God calls me to be.
Naturally, I don’t sit around thinking about my name all the time, as this essay might indicate. But I do think about it. I feel it is a calling, an identity to reach toward, one I hope to live into. Of course I never will do that perfectly, but the name itself is an encouragement along the way. I really do want to “live up to” my name, in whatever ways I can.
And if my dad ever wants to call me Sheilo-Bean again, I will welcome it, no matter who might be around to hear it!
Sheila Vamplin learned early to love God through words, music, and people. Her English degree, piano study, and choral singing somehow led her to Italy and then to Croatia. Landing back in the U.S. after three years of war, she earned a counseling degree. Now a licensed marriage and family therapist with a DMin in spiritual formation, she has concurrently taught piano students and has sung with the Memphis Chamber Choir and the Rhodes Mastersingers Chorale. Her current focus is translating the Italian memoir of beloved friend Tosca Barucci Chesi. As a counselor and spiritual director, Sheila has a heart for artists and those in professional ministry. She loves Gerard Manley Hopkins. With her husband she plans to return to Croatia, anticipating more surprises and trusting that the Holy Ghost will continue brooding over the bent world, even and perhaps especially there.
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