All my life, people have spelled or pronounced my name incorrectly. As a result, I’ve always tried not to do that to other people. When I became a volunteer at Franciscan Outreach, I didn’t know how well that would serve me in the soup kitchen.
Names are more than labels or curses from our parents. A name is holy, a marker for a particular person; even if we share ours with someone else, we make it unique in how it comes out of our mouths. It tells the person who hears it that they are known by someone else. I have a lot of favorite moments from the kitchen, but few gave me the same pure joy as the reactions I got when guests weren’t expecting to hear their names.
I remember a Polish man named Jan looking childishly happy when I knew his name even though I hadn’t seen him for weeks. “You remember me?” he said through grinning teeth.
I remember a tall man named Ivan who once dubbed me “Lady with the Names” like it was an official title. I considered having it embroidered on my apron.
I relished all the double takes and sudden changes of expression as people said, smiling, “You must have a great memory.” That happened at least twice a week, every week.
Calling someone by name tells them, “I will remember you when no one else does. You are a person to me too.” I thought about this a lot when guests disappeared for weeks or, sometimes months, at a time. Pretty often, I’d mention someone I hadn’t seen in awhile and they would respond with, “Which one was that again?” In those moments, I felt a sympathetic fragment of the sting of loneliness that comes with being forgotten. I always tried harder to hold onto those people.
If committing at least two hundred poor and homeless individuals’ names to memory was my gift to my friends in the soup kitchen, hearing my name back was their gift to me. Many times, after a few days of greeting someone with more than just “Sir” or “Ma’am,” they would approach me and say, “You know my name, but I don’t know yours.” Then I’d tell them and they’d make their own connections so they’d remember too. One of our musical guests liked to call me “KC and the Sunshine Band.” I got “Casey at the Bat” pretty consistently. I even achieved “Case” status with a couple of guys. Sometimes guests apologized for forgetting my name or calling me the wrong one—because they know how much it hurts to be seen as just a body or as someone you’re not.
The names are the most sacred thing I hope to take away from my year in the kitchen, because in some ways, they’ve made more lasting impressions than any practical skills I’ve developed. If I ever forget Steve or Boleslaw, Don or Charley, I will mourn a lot more than I would if I forgot how to make twelve pounds of rice in one sitting or how long it takes to grill 120 hamburgers. I will save all their pictures and write their stories for myself so they will never seem too far away. I will carry them in my heart so they will always have “a home that’s not a house,” as Raul likes to say.