by Tracy Nunes
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Her mother named her Santeria; an unusual choice bearing in mind her Mama was a God-fearing, dyed-in the-wool Protestant. Being named after a Caribbean religion that jumbled Voodoo with Catholicism haunted her childhood. She would have recurring dreams of running on a beach, being chased by an unamed evil that called her name. What was Mama thinking?
When pressed about it Mama would usually only say five words, “It’s for the best, child.”
Santeria started introducing herself as “Ria” as far back as she could remember. Something about her name set people off-kilter and the shortened version was just easier and created less of a stir.
She had a clear memory of a very old, furrowed woman who bent down, even in her stiffness, to greet Santeria face to face. Kindness framed those wizened eyes; they beckoned Ria, and her ample bosom felt like warm quilt folds when she enveloped Ria for a long embrace.
When the hug was over and the woman bent once again to ask her name…
“Santeria, Ma'am. My name is Santeria.”
Though the kindness never left her eyes she released the tiniest gasp; a look of confusion crossed over her face.
After a few brief seconds of puzzling a decision seemed to be made. The woman cleared her throat and pulled Ria into her arms again. When she released her there was no mistaking the sadness in the woman’s eyes and at the corners of her mouth. Ria wondered what could have caused the tremble in the woman’s lower lip.
The woman’s gentleness never faltered, but Ria was left with the impression that something about her name had made this kind old woman sad - and maybe even a little scared.
“What does it matter? What’s in a name anyway?” This was Tig, childhood ally now boyfriend, on a sweltering August afternoon. Ironic, considering his Mama bypassed his given name – Jeffrey - early on and nicknamed him Tigger after the bouncy Winnie the Pooh character. Keeping still wasn’t his strong point; a characteristic he still displayed as he fidgeted under their favorite Magnolia tree.
“So you say,” laughed Ria. Her mind picturing time and again since they were kids when teachers, parents, even waiters at restaurants, told Tig to “Sit still!”
Now, they were in college, Ria a junior and Tig in his last year. He’d long since lost patience with her mission to know about her name.
“Can’t you just be Ria and get over it?”
At times she did, the force of life and school surpassed the mystery of her name. But, it didn’t take long before she circled back around to it.
That old woman had been just the first of many people who expressed surprise, or something like it, when she told them her name.
There was her friend Jenny’s mother who said yes to play dates less and less often after she found out that Ria was short for Santeria.
When she applied for a job at the YMCA, the gum smacking, blue-haired lady behind the counter raised an eyebrow when she read Santeria’s name on the application. She held it lightly on the corners as if it might bite her.
Oh, it wasn’t all the time. Some people, especially the “unchurched” as her pastor would say, found her name to be quite beautiful. They would say it a couple of times and smile in approval like it was a little poem. And, on occasion she met people from the Islands who thought it was absolutely enchanting.
When she was twelve she researched her name online and sat stunned in front of the computer screen when she discovered its meaning. What was Mama thinking? Confronting her revealed nothing; Mama could be a bit mysterious at times. When pressed hard once Mama got a far off look in her eyes and mumbled something about “crossroads….”
Mama died when Ria was sixteen and she went to live with her Aunt Selda and Uncle Butch, her mother’s brother. She grieved for a long time for her Mama and over the feeling that something was left undone.
After a time she began to pester her Uncle about her name and when she did he changed from his open, gentle way and became tight lipped and cautious. He finally said, “I didn’t agree with it, but it’s done. It’ll all be revealed in time, child.”
On her twenty-first birthday her Aunt and Uncle threw her a big party. Friends, neighbors, and co-workers came to celebrate with presents in hand. They outdid themselves and Ria was touched. She opened her presents one by one, feeling the love surrounding her and settling in it. When it came to the last gift, her Uncle cleared his throat, “Ria, this is from your Mama. I had strict instructions to save it for your twenty-first birthday.”
Ria’s breath caught in her chest; it had been five years since Mama’s passing. She tenderly opened the wrapping, tears dropping onto the fine-looking paper. It was a box of some kind. Old and worn, but beautifully adorned with tiny pictures of tropical settings: coconut trees, beaches, laughing women in bright clothing. Inside there was a sealed envelope yellowed with age and never opened.
Ria knew right away that this was something she needed to read alone. She put the letter back in the box and went on with the party, dancing with Tig and her Uncle and reveling in the love that encompassed her.
Later that night she opened the box again and drew out the letter. Something about the moment caused her to whisper a prayer to Jesus, “Lord, I don’t know what’s in here but I’ve got a feeling I’m going to need your help with it.” Jesus was more to Ria than a name. He was THE Name; her Friend, Confidant and Defender.
She opened the letter and a faded photograph fell out. It looked like Mama when she was a little girl, her face cheerless and wary. She was standing next to a man wearing flowing robes and a feather headdress. Next to him was a small woman, similarly dressed, but less adorned. Something about the picture made Ria shiver. Gathering her blanket around her, she began to read:
My Dearest Baby Girl Ria,
You are sixteen as I am writing this letter. I’d planned to have this talk on your twenty-first birthday but things aren’t looking good and I’ve accepted that I won’t be here with you when that time comes around. But, Oh child! I know you will be something to behold. A treasure! I hope you know that I’m in Heaven - praying for you, loving you.
You always asked me about your name and it was hard for me to hold back from you. Forgive me. The picture I’ve included is of my family in Haiti, before I came to America. I know you’re shocked now because I always told you that I was from Georgia. I’m sorry I lied. This man and woman are my real Mama and Daddy. They were very religious and people in our town would come to them to perform purification rituals and for blessing. They were Santeria priests, Ria.
My Mama and Daddy died in a fierce hurricane when I was seven. I loved them and missed them, I did, but I was always anxious growing up. The rituals, the sacrifices… Daddy would go into a trance and Mama would shriek. I would cry in the corner of the room. Sometimes I crawled under the pallet that I slept on.
Missionaries took me in at the orphanage after they died; everything was different there. I was adopted by a couple from Georgia when I was nine. That would be Granny and Paw Paw. Uncle Butch was there boy. Gracious, did they love the Lord! And they would tell me about Jesus. I felt guilty for it but I never wanted to go back to Haiti. I was home.
I know, right now you’re wondering if that could be true and if it is, why I would name you after the thing that I hated. Listen Baby Girl, Santeria jumbles two worlds, two ways. They try to worship two gods; the living God and the Devil. But, that can’t be done. You can’t be worshipping the Devil and Jesus. One will not have the other.
I named you Santeria because I wanted you to know the choice you had and to make it. To know where you came from and to know where you are going; to choose which way to go. I knew the power if it, that it would pursue you and try to take back its possession.
I was so pleased when you decided to be Ria because you were choosing your way. It was fitting, being the Hebrew word for “Wished for Child.” By doing that you cast off the old and it held no power over you.
You chose well Baby Girl, you chose well. I’ll be waiting for you in the place that has been prepared for us and always praying for you.
All My Love Forever, Mama
Ria reread the letter twice while her mind danced back and forth over her memories. The mystery was solved and Ria knew that Mama had done the right thing. The reactions to her name had made her repel from that religion like a cat runs from water.
She placed the letter back into the box and curled back into the blanket. She lay for a while thinking about Mama and missing her.
When sleep finally overtook her she dreamed about coconut trees and swaying palms. She could smell the Night Blooming Jasmine and feel the warmth of the ocean on her toes as she ran along the shore. At first it was exhilarating and she was breathless with an unnamed excitement, but as she ran she began to feel the hot breath of evil on her neck - chasing her, craving for her. She let out a scream, “Jesus!” and at once she was in a shack, lying with her head on Mama’s lap as she sang Ria a lullaby.
Ria woke up gently, like a baby in the hushed hours of early morning, at peace and knowing that “Wished for Child” was more than just a name.
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