nomenclature

Few things in this world are perfect, but my name is one of them.

It’s not an easy name. I’m constantly repeating it and spelling it out (Bee-Ell-Ay-Eye-Are, no E). Nine out of ten introductions, the script goes “‘I’m Blair.’ ‘Nice to meet you, Claire.’ ‘Actually, it’s Blair. With a B.” But I could never have been anything but a Blair (though my boyfriend’s father affectionately affords me the dignity of a definite article—I am THE Blair, for there shall be no others!) Being known by any other name may have had no effect on my relative olfactory sweetness, but I, me, could not have been called anything but this: five letters, two vowels, one syllable. When I was a kid and learning to type, I put a p at the end, I presume for decoration—Blairp, why not?—but beyond that, I have never wanted another label, appellation, nickname, or tag.

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If you know me or follow me on Twitter (aren’t those just the same these days?! Har har har! #millenials), you will see that I keep an OHSA-style countdown of how many days since some well-meaning writer has proposed a book to “Mr. Blair Thornburgh.” I take more amusement than offense at the mistake—it’s my canary-in-the-coal-mine, no-brown-M&Ms litmus test for writers doing their due diligence (because a glaring inaccuracy in a query letter speaks poorly of their abilities to, I don’t know, write). I’m not trying to make fun of anyone, and I’m not trying to be unfair, either. My name—insofar as it’s mine—is weird. I get that. Facts of Life and Gossip Girl notwithstanding, male Blairs do outnumber we ladyBlairs 3-to-1. I know because I was named for one.

It’s not entirely accurate to say that Blair McKillip, Jr. was my grandfather, because he and I never were at the same time. What he was was my mother’s father, a brilliant lawyer, a cutting wit, a deer hunter, and a deeply, tragically troubled person. He left behind a wife and three children—including 11-year-old Becky, who would one day become my mother—and a raw hole in their lives I’d never thought I could imagine.

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I know the exact moment that I graduated from being merely Blair. I was just out of college, working at a newspaper, wobbling home on the J train in heels every night to sleep on a sublet mattress. New York was an expensive place to be lonely and I was doing okay.

A story came in: a man had drowned. The more details that filtered in, the worse it got. A pediatric surgeon, Chinese-American but a Jewish convert for his wife, three kids, swimming out into Lake Michigan to save another who wasn’t his, by all accounts an impossibly kind human being. The worst kind of person to die, in other words. He worked—had worked—at the hospital attached to my alma mater, and so I was tasked with dredging up details. I hated it. Regular, benign interviews about banal things like foie gras and 501(c)(3) documents already sent me to the bathroom to shake and breathe deeply, and this was infinitely worse. Phone calls went unanswered—obviously. I squirmed with every redial, bothering people at the absolute last time people want to be bothered.

And then, one morning, my inbox pinged: his daughter. Her GMail icon was something bright yellow and happy—a bee, a sun, I don’t remember—and her message was an essay, a beautiful and intelligent remembrance of her father, her hero. She was thirteen years old.

The paper picked it up immediately. We published it in the next print edition with photos from her Bat Mitzvah—big paternal hands on resting newly adult shoulders, a smile more joyful than any I have ever seen. I mailed her family five copies of the paper and sent her an email to say thank you for sharing.

“Ms. Thornburgh,” her reply began, “Thank you so much for this opportunity. It has always been my dream to be a published writer.”

That evening, I made it across the bridge into Brooklyn before I started crying. Because somewhere I was still Blair, age thirteen, wanting desperately to be a writer; somewhere else another girl had gotten that same wish in the most fucked-up way possible. Here I was now, Ms. Thornburgh, a few bylines under my belt, big city girl. Ms. Thornburgh kicking off stupid high heels that never fit, denting the wall beneath someone else’s posters, and crying ugly sobs. Ms. Thornburgh, pressing her phone to her face—Rebecca Thornburgh on the glassy surface, the minutes ticking up and up with nothing but gasps—begging “Please tell me this girl is going to be okay. Please tell me she’ll be okay” and not even needing to hear anything back because the very fact that she is, and that she is Blair’s daughter, and that she is my mom, and that I am Blair mean yes. Yes, because we name things that they might not die. Yes, some things remain.

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I did not know Blair McKillip. But when I say I have nothing of him but his name, I do not say it lightly. That name is everything to me and everything that is me. Humans are creatures of words, and names are the most proper and holy of those. This name is conscripted to me for common and sacred use, transfiguring from a barcode I bubbled in to the SATs to a sticky square on the front of my sweater to whatever—if any—essential quality there is to the flesh-and-blood being who types this stuff. B-L-A-I-R, past and present. And one day, it will be everything there is of me.

Last weekend I went to a beautiful wedding—this is not redundant; not all weddings are beautiful—and I cried six times. The last time wasn’t even at the ceremony; I was just looking at the wedding-day pictures of parents and grandparents set up at the reception and quietly weeping into my placecard. I realized that getting married is basically telling someone “If the only thing that survives about me for time immemorial is my name stuck to yours with a little equals sign in the front of the family Bible, that is okay with me. That is what I actively choose.” Everything else of you will fall away until you are a nothing but nodule in a string of who-begat-whom, a line of letters, a name.

If there is any magic in the world, it is in words, because they are what conjures for us things that are not there. And if for humankind there is life eternal, it is in and of and through our names.

So. It’s Blair, girl Blair, with a B. Nice to meet you.

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