I’ve been alive more than 22,000 days. That’s about how many times I’ve had to repeat, explain or spell my name for somebody.
It’s tiring, redundant, annoying. But it goes with the territory when your parents burden/bless you with an unusual name.
Heaven? My, that’s a lovely name.
Did you say Heather? Oh, you meant Karen. Carolyn?
Kevin. Hmmm. Really? Is that a family name?
I guess your parents must have wanted a boy.
I remember one day coming home from school in tears. I’m not sure how old I was, maybe 8 or 10. Somebody for the thousandth time suggested that my parents wanted a boy and that’s why they gave me a boy’s name. I was convinced it was true and felt like a failure, the cause of profound disappointment, a misfit unworthy of love.
My parents assured me that my name indicated no such thing. They just happened to like the name and figured spelling it with an “e” rather than an “i” would add gender clarity to the world in the same way that Francis and Frances are rarely confused.
I was unconvinced. “I’m a girl and you wanted a boy. It’s not fair,” I wailed.
My dad wasn’t having any of it.
If you were a boy, you would have been named David.
Hmm. That sounded plausible. My wails turned to sniffles.
My mother added the coup de grace:
You’re named after another little girl who lived down the street in Bethesda, Maryland with her sister Andrea.
That sounded real – and convincing. It did the trick. Never again did the taunts of other children, or adults, bother me. I knew if I’d have been a boy, my name would have been David, and that another little girl out there existed somewhere – in the flesh – after whom I was named.
Which is why all my life I’ve wanted to meet The Other Keven.
Last week, I did.
It was wonderful. Keven is lovely, kind, adventurous, fun. And she has the cutest German Shorthaired Pointer named Roxy.
The Big Meet was a long time coming.
Keven’s family moved away from Anniston Road when I was two and she was 10. Our families lost touch. I always wondered what became Keven, her sister Andrea, her southern mother and Coast Guard officer father.
Years later, my mother wondered if NBC’s Andrea Mitchell wasn’t “our Andrea.” I spent two years covering the 1988 presidential campaign – traveling with Democrats Bruce Babbitt, Michael Dukakis, Richard Gephardt, Al Gore, Jesse Jackson and Republicans George H.W. Bush, Pete du Pont, Al Haig and Jack Kemp – and landed at one point on the same candidate-campaign plane as Mitchell. I asked her if she’d ever lived on Anniston Road.
One day in about 1999 or 2000 – neither Keven can remember precisely which year it was – I was sitting at my computer at The Arizona Republic in Phoenix when an email popped up on my screen that made my heart stop.
Hi Keven, I think I’m the Keven you’re named after.
OMG. Unbelievable. I couldn’t catch my breath.
I read the email quickly – she lived on Anniston Road in Bethesda in the 1950s, now resides in the San Francisco area, came across my name and newspaper on the internet, wanted to reach out, etc. – and forwarded it immediately to my mother, who would remember the details of Keven’s family better than I.
Then I wrote back: Was your dad in the Coast Guard? Do you have a sister named Andrea? What’s your middle name?
We exchanged photos. And more emails. We caught each other up on our lives – marriages, divorces, children, work. We’ve exchanged Christmas cards every year since.
But we never met.
When Keven learned of our Year on the Edges of America adventure, she urged us to include her on our itinerary when we got to Northern California. So we did. And what a glorious time we had together.
We reminisced. We hiked. We ate. We reminisced some more.
We started The Meet with some delicious California sparkling wine, of course, to celebrate the event. Here’s the view of the Richmond Bridge over the San Pablo Bay from Keven’s back patio.
We learned that we share a love of travel, adventure and good food. We’ve each lost a parent to complications of dementia and are blessed to have a parent still robust in their 90s.
Keven and I both have brown eyes, red woks and a love of books. Her parents read her The Ransom of Red Chief by O. Henry just as my parents did. (The 1910 short story is about two men who kidnap and attempt to ransom a boy from his family in Alabama, but the boy is so spoiled and devious that the men ultimately pay his father to take him back.) I wonder what this means.
G and Keven clicked, too. She made us a wonderfully spicy meat-and-beans chili dish over rice with a delectable citrus meringue dessert. We (Georges) made her a seafood medley over linguini topped with shrimp stuffed with goat cheese and a banana and strawberry flambé dessert.
One day, we hiked with Keven up Gold Hill along an old fire road near her home. The views were great. We tried our hand at a selfie of the three of us with downtown San Rafael in the background.
We concluded the loop hike by walking through the elegant campus of Dominican University, where Keven’s daughter was graduated. Then we enjoyed a delicious lunch at Comforts restaurant in lovely San Anselmo and a personally narrated tour of the towns of San Rafael (“rah-FELL”), Ross (where you have to go to the Post Office to get your mail) and Kentfield (where you don’t). This is where Keven raised her children; she’s lived here off and on (not counting stints of 2-3 years each in Toronto, Sydney and London) for some 35 years.
The reminiscing continued.
Keven remembers my mother, pregnant, coming to her house (we lived next door) to ask her mother if it would be OK to name their child, if it were a girl, after their youngest child, Keven. Her mother said, yes, that would be sweet.
Nobody asked me, Keven recalled. I would have said no. No other little girl should have to endure the aggravation that goes with this name.
As the years went by, Keven always remembered that there was a little girl named after her. She wearied of always having to explain her name, and knowing somebody else was out there experiencing the same thing gave her solace. It was a comfort knowing she wasn’t alone. Somebody else, somewhere, understood.
Keven carried a photo with her for nearly 20 years of toddler me sitting on some steps – until her wallet was stolen. She described the photo from memory to my mom via FaceTime last week and Mom recalled the location of the steps in our back yard on Anniston Road.
Keven and I exchanged stories about the bizarre things people have said when they learn our name. I liked the one Keven told about a man she met at a dance.
He asked her name. She told him. He seemed puzzled. She added helpfully that the second “e” makes the name feminine.
“No,” he said. “It’s you that makes the name feminine.”
Great pick-up line. (Keven’s boyfriend returned just then and she never saw the you-make-it-feminine gentleman again.)
As an adult, I love my name. I’ve met a Kevinne, Kevan and even a Kevon. But never another Keven. I like that the name is unique (almost) and memorable. That’s an asset. I’ve come a long way from that shy little girl mortified every time the teacher called roll and looked to the boys’ side of the classroom for the owner of my name or erroneously assigned me to boys PE.
Another day during our visit with Keven, G and I set off for the town of Tiburon and took the short ferry ride over to Angel Island, known as “The Ellis Island of the West.” The day was beautiful, the story of Angel Island not so much.
The Island, despite its angelic name, wasn’t a place of welcome. Instead, it was more a cudgel used against immigrants, especially those from China.
Congress had passed in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred most Chinese immigrants from entering the United States. Nearly a million people were processed at Angel Island from 1910 to 1940 from more than 80 countries. Many spent months in detention before being admitted or, more likely, rejected. While on the Island, families were separated. (This sounds disturbingly familiar.)
Illustrating the racism of the era, European and other non-Asian immigrants slept, ate, exercised and were hospitalized separately from the “Asiatics” – Chinese and Japanese.
We walked through the still-standing barracks. The walls are covered with small, finely etched Chinese symbols. They are the remnants of poems written by those trapped in the camps.
We listened to several poems, translated into English, at one of several exhibits at the Immigration Center’s museum. They tell haunting stories of sorrow, anger and hope.
To get around the exclusion law, Chinese men who were legally in the U.S. would sell spaces reserved for family members to Chinese citizens who wanted to come to the U.S. This practice of “paper sons” led immigration officials to develop a demanding interview process to establish the legitimacy of an immigrant claim.
How many steps are there to your front door? Who lived in the third house in the second row of houses in your village?
Really? I’d fail this test for sure.
The exclusion law was repealed during World War II when the United States and China became allies.
An information plaque said the poems written on the walls by detainees were almost lost in the 1970s when the detention center was slated to be torn down. Their discovery helped spur a campaign to save the building and its inscriptions.
Eventually we found our way back to Keven’s. We learned more about one another. She’s a grandmother to four; I to two. She graduated with a degree in communications; I in journalism. She’s a 20-year breast cancer survivor who has traveled all over the world, from South Africa to Peru, Japan and – as of this week on a trip with her sister, who still lives in the Washington, D.C. area – to New Zealand.
I showed her photos I’d taken of Anniston Road when we passed through Maryland on this perimeter trip last May. Keven remembered her street address. This is what her old home looks like now – completely re-done and unrecognizable to her but for the street number.
We deduced that this must have been the home my family lived in after I was born. (My mother couldn’t remember the street number for sure.) This one’s not been McMansioned yet.
So how did YOU get YOUR name, I asked Keven one afternoon.
Keven smiled. That’s a story in and of itself.
Her mother, it seems, had quite the jealous streak, though Keven was quick to add that her father gave her mother absolutely no cause. Each time a more typical, gender-appropriate name was proposed that her father seemed to like, so the story goes, her mother would frown and say something like:
Why, who do you know by that name that makes you smile so?
Eventually, her mother came upon the idea to name her second daughter after herself and to add a second, most unusual middle name. She wanted to be sure that her husband would never have known another woman by her daughter’s name.
And Virginia Keven was born.
To be followed a few years later by Keven Ann.
And that, as Paul Harvey used to say, is the Rest of the Story.
UPDATED at 4:30 p.m. Pacific Time to correct dog breed, a recollection about our name and a couple of misspellings.