Have you ever heard someone say, “_____ is my middle name” as a way of emphasizing that they have or even embody a certain quality? Once, after a few absences and assignment extensions, I had a professor say to me, “Don’t worry; understanding is my middle name.” I laughed. “Professor? Understanding is actually my middle name.”
My middle name is Ferstandig, which is an Americanized German word for “understanding.” I didn’t always love this name. I was actually quite embarrassed about it for the first 15 years of my life. I was an anxious and self-conscious kid who would have much preferred to have a middle name that others could recognize, pronounce, or at least spell. So many people had a simple name, not their grandfather’s family name or their mother’s maiden name. I was so frustrated with the name that when my parents divorced and my mom considered retaking her name, I laughed at her, saying that she had won the last name lottery when she married into “Arnold.”
It wasn’t until my grandfather died that I learned more about the name I hated so much. After I heard the story, my middle name became something I love. Names are a crucial way of identifying ourselves, of showing where and with whom we belong in the world. For the first time, I was excited to identify with this odd and beautiful family name.
It turned out that the name was never German. It came from Polish and Jewish family members who escaped through Germany around the time that Hitler came to power, before events reached a peak. They came from a town in Poland so small that there was no need for last names, so they acquired one en route to Germany, the path by which they became a few of the only people from their town to escape. Later, when they came to the United States, Ellis Island workers couldn’t pronounce or spell the German word (welcome to my world), so they Americanized it on the forms. That’s where Ferstandig came from.
It may be complicated to pronounce and spell, but it represents strength, courage, and survivorship amidst violence and trauma, as well as the everyday and long-term obstacles that faced the survivors of it. And, beautifully, it’s become an adjective that people ascribe to me more and more without even knowing the context that enhances the connection and definition for me. It’s an adjective that describes one of the most necessary qualities of a hospital chaplain – and I’ve got it in spades.
When I was about to graduate from college, my sorority sisters in Sigma Phi Lambda decided to make senior superlative sashes for all of us soon-to-be alumnae. This precious word, “understanding,” was their choice for me. I nearly cried from joy. The name that once was frustrating, yet another thing that made me feel odd and different from my peers, had become my namesake – something that people knew me for. I was proud to have it. I am thankful for my grandpa who fought to get to the United States. He fought for his education and saved up money when he had it so that his kids (and his grandkids!) would never have to struggle to receive an education. I walked across a graduation stage debt-free because of his understanding of the future.
Now, I’m a few months from walking across a different stage, this time to mark the passage from grad school to my first full-time job. Thank you, grandpa, for the funny and beautiful middle name that I’m proud to bear. I miss you, love you, and wish you could be here to see what understanding heights has brought me to.