Last Friday, we got confirmation that the little being growing in my belly is indeed a girl (!). I had a feeling this would be the case, but it was nice (and scary) to have that confirmation. Like most girls, I’ve had my share of favorite names throughout the years. I remember the first name I liked was “Katrina” in the 3rd grade and that was TOTALLY going to be the name of my baby girl when I grew up to be an adult in one hundred years. I’ve had some real gem favorites along the way, ranging from cutesy to embarrassing to kitschy. But when I read one of my favorite books of all time, “The History of Love" by Nicole Krauss, I immediately threw all other name choices from the top of the list, as I would be naming my daughter Alma, after the narrator of the book and also the subject of the primary story (not the same person, both Almas). Alma means "soul" in Spanish, and in Italian. I think of this book almost daily and pull my copy out to flip through the dogeared pages now and then to read my favorite passages, always to a sigh, a smile, an ache or a goddam I wish I could write like that.
Those who know me best know that I claimed this name and now I’m being asked, "So, will she be an Alma?" I find myself hesitating. I suppose I’m both sad and excited to give the name away (so much as it is mine to give). Like your most favorite possession that holds unspeakable significance - that of discovering new, identifying, changing, fall in love, remembering old love, recognition, confirmation, and so much more - ah, the magic of a good book. There’s an element of reverence and attachment to both the book and the name, but how better to let it live than to give it to my own little girl?
This is a passage from the book that explains Alma, and just one of the reasons that I fell in love with her, the idea of her, and the book itself.
My mother used to read to me from The History of Love."The first woman may have been Eve, but the first girl will always be Alma," she’d say, the Spanish book open on her lap while I lay in bed. This was when I was four or five, before Dad got sick and the book was put away on the shelf. "Maybe the first time you saw here you were ten. She was standing in the sun scratching her legs. Or tracing letters in the dirt with a stick. Her hair was being pulled. Or she was pulling someone’s hair. And a part of you was drawn to her, and part of you resisted - wanting to ride off on your bicycle, kick a stone, remain uncomplicated. In the same breath you felt the strength of a man, and the self-pity that made you feel small and hurt. Part of you thought: Pleas don’t look at me. If you don’t, I can still turn away. And part of you thought: Look at me.
"If you remember the first time you saw Alma, you also remember the last. She was shaking her head. Or disappearing across a field. Or through your window. Come back, Alma! you shouted. Come back! Come back!
"But she didn’t.
"And though you were grown up by then, you felt as lost as a child. And though your pride was broken, you felt as vast as your love for her. She was gone, and all that was left was the space where you’d grown around her, like a tree that grows around a fence.
"For a long time, it remained hollow. Years, maybe. And when at last it was filled again, you knew that the new love you felt for a woman would have been impossible without Alma. If it weren’t for her, there would never have been an empty space, or the need to fill it.
"Of course there are certain cases in which the boy in question refuses to stop shouting at the top of his lungs for Alma. Stages a hunger strike. Pleads. Fills a book with his love. Carries on until she has no choice but to come back. Every time she tries to leave, knowing what has to be done, the boy stops her, begging like a fool. And so she always returns, no matter how often she leaves or how far she goes, appearing soundlessly behind him and covering his eyes with her hands, spoiling for him anyone who could ever come after her."