This weekend, I tried to end something that’s been nagging at me for a while. A small worry, a lingering regret. A few years ago, I bought a 1920's-era photograph from an old woman at a neighborhood-wide garage sale. The woman told me that the person in the picture was one of her cousins, whom she’d always found disagreeable – which surprised me, since the cousin looked happy, maybe even in love. Of course, we don’t always see the people we know and dislike, in their best moments. Maybe only in photographs.
Out of respect for her privacy – or reservations, rather, not wanting to seem weird or invasive – I didn’t ask the old woman what her cousin’s first and last names were. I have a vague memory of her telling me that the cousin’s name was Delphine, but I’m not sure about this. Since that day, I’ve often thought about this now-nameless person in my old photo collection. Most of the subjects in my collection are nameless, but the difference, of course, is that this one didn’t have to be.
Last week, I saw signs for another neighborhood garage sale, in the same area where I’d bought the picture. So, on Sunday, I gently took the photo from the antique album where I’d placed it, and set it between two blank pages of a hardcover book. Then, I set out, hoping to find this woman again, and finally give a name to the lady in the photo.
My quest made sense to me, but when I’d mentioned it to a few students who’d asked me about my weekend plans, or to the boyfriend, everyone had just looked at me in puzzlement. “What does it matter?” they’d asked, verbally or with a subtly raised eyebrow.
I couldn’t exactly answer. Knowing this woman’s name would give her a concrete identity, I guess, but then again, isn’t knowing about her character (albeit from only one person’s point of view) even more valuable?
“What’s in a name?” Juliet Capulet once pondered, deciding, finally, that there are far more important things than a moniker. I certainly agree…but I realize that names have always been important to me. Even as a little girl, I insisted I’d keep my last name when I got married. When I was in fourth grade, there was another “Alysa” in my class – a phenomenon that’s rather rare among the sparse population of us in this world. The teacher told us that, as with all same-named students, we'd be called by our first name, and differentiated by the initial of our last name. But something in me rebelled at being so closely nominally linked to someone else, and so I asked to be called by my middle name, instead.
Of course, some names also carry stories with them. Last year, while writing a post about some of the photos in my collection, on a whim I googled the full name written on the back of a portrait of a seemingly bemused young woman, taken in 1910.
"Août [August] 1910/Marguerite Kolb-Bernard"
Amazingly, a result came up. I was able to learn that Marguerite Kolb-Bernard, the woman in my photo, was the daughter of Rita Strohl, a respected female composer. The creator of a blog dedicated to Strohl had even met Marguerite when she was an old woman. He wrote about her personality, philosophy on life, and recollections, quoted things she said to him.
In the end, my search for a name to put to my other picture was to no avail. There was no old woman sitting with a messy box of photos beside her, as there had been those few years ago. I worked up my courage to ask someone who, from far away, vaguely resembled her – but as I’d started to ask my question, I realized she was a lot younger than she’d first seemed, and I rephrased it, asking if she’d seen the person I was looking for. She hadn’t, and didn’t know her.
For now, at least, the lady in my collection will remain nameless.
It’s funny what seems important to us about our identity. While I searched for a long-departed woman’s name, my friend Michel* was worried about his face. Several of us – myself very much included – had pushed him to see someone about an odd-looking mole that had appeared above his lip a few months back, and seemed to be getting bigger. He’d brushed us off as paranoid or hypochondriacs, until luckily a doctor had noticed it and told him the same thing.
The biopsy results revealed that, unfortunately, we weren’t just paranoid hypochondriacs: the mole was a basal cell carcinoma – basically an abnormal growth that would continue to increase in size and spread, if it wasn’t surgically removed. We felt relieved that it wasn’t something worse. I wasn’t surprised that Michel still seemed worried, though – after all, he does have to have a surgical procedure done, and was also faced with the “c” word, which is always scary.
But I came to find out that his worry is not only about those things, but also about the scar he’ll have after the procedure. I guess I'm surprised because, in addition to my not particularly finding most scars a big deal – and even finding them interesting – and having a facial scar, myself, which I'm unbothered by and even sort of proud of - Michel's overwhelming concern doesn't seem to fit with who he is or what he does in the world. While he’s a handsome man, he’s not always perfectly dressed or coiffed; his interests lie more in the cerebral than the physical. He isn’t a model or actor or in any way dependent on his looks to make a living or do what he loves. He’s also already in a long-term, committed relationship. And then there’s the site of the future scar: it'll be situated in a relatively unnoticeable area, just above the left side of his lip, and, I think, will be pretty small, considering the carcinoma was caught before it could get significantly big or spread out to other places.
I guess I just can’t get past the whole thing. If someone told me I had a cancerous growth on any part of my body, I feel like my instinct would be to get it the hell off me. I can understand having a plastic surgeon do the removal, which is apparently common for facial carcinomas, but I certainly wouldn’t hesitate. Michel, on the other hand, seems to be looking for alternatives. Someone told him about a cream that could reduce the carcinoma and make it “disappear”. Luckily, he asked his doctor and found out that this cream might reduce scarring, but that it could also cause skin discoloration, which is why it’s not used on the face.
The other day, Michel told me that his father said that he wouldn’t get the carcinoma removed. Not because of any concern about the surgery – but again because of that scar. What kind of a family is this, I wondered? In my own family, there’d be no question about what to do. Worrying about a scar would be secondary.
I keep trying to understand this way of thinking. Ultimately, I suppose it all comes down to identity. Our face is the way we show ourselves to the world at first, for better or for worse, and if you don’t like the thought of having a scar there, it must be difficult. But as for me, I’d far rather have a small scar and keep on living (maybe one day becoming an old lady selling photographs of her relatives and talking smack about them) rather than die young and nameless with an unscarred face.
Then again, I may be in the minority. Juliet never asked, “What’s in a face?”
*Name has been changed.