Elise Juska on Finally Learning the True Story of Her Namesake

June 12, 2019 | 8 min read

On the first day of every new semester, I ask my students to write stories about their names. It’s an exercise that reliably generates discussion-worthy material: the reasons behind their naming (some familial; some symbolic; a smattering of homages to soap opera characters, musicians, and delivery nurses) or the way their feelings about their names have evolved over time. It’s a trusted opener, one that gets the class talking, making connections. But surely I also keep returning to it because I have a name story of my own.

My nickname, Ellie, came from my great-aunt Ellie Slocum. According to my parents, I wasn’t named for her, but they liked Ellie, and liked the name in part because they liked her. She was one of a trio of older relatives who celebrated holidays at my grandparents’ house in New Jersey, along with Dwight and Irene, two of my grandmother’s 11 siblings from northern Maine.

Irene I remember as bright and girlish: thick glittery rings, lavender hair, clip-on earrings the size of cotton balls, a musical laugh. As a child, I knew that her husband, Harry, had died too young, that everyone had loved him, and he was buried with their parakeet John John (so named for JFK, Jr.) who used to stand on the table during dinner, eating off their plates.

Dwight I picture as a quiet presence settled deeply into the couch. He had low-hanging jowls, sleepy eyelids, thick-knuckled hands resting on the dog nestled in his lap—a poodle named Snowball or, later, a livelier poodle named ChaChi, who sometimes leapt down to scrabble through the torn gift wrap on the floor. Dwight liked peanuts, drew cartoons, bet on horses; he was, I now know, quietly wealthy. Every Christmas, he brought a large glass jar in which he’d stored the loose change he’d collected during the previous 12 months and gave it to his sister’s grandchildren, who emptied it, creating a mountain on the carpet to scramble through and divide up in roughly equal parts.

Dwight and Irene lived in the same house; their names, along with the dog’s, appeared together on our Christmas tags every year. Ellie was—a cousin? I didn’t know, and didn’t wonder. We called her my great-aunt; I didn’t press for more than that. The more urgent detail was her hair, which was twisted like a sculpture, unwound every night and brushed one hundred times, like something out of a fairytale. Her eyeglasses hung from an ornate silver chain, and her legs were always encased in shimmering nylons, shins slid elegantly together, resting on high heels. She seemed vaguely like a celebrity. She and I got our picture taken together every year.

It was only when she died (elegantly, in her sleep) that I learned Ellie had been Dwight’s fiancé. They’d gotten engaged in 1935; they’d been engaged ever since.

When I asked my father and his siblings about Dwight and Ellie, they told slightly different versions of the story, but the basic plot remains the same: after moving from Maine to New Jersey in the early 1930s, Dwight socialized with my grandparents’ friends Grace and Frank Lane. The Lanes rented an apartment from Ellie’s parents, which sat behind the grand old house where Ellie’s family lived.

Ellie was, by all accounts, exceptionally pretty. From there, the stories part ways, mostly in regard to her degree of agency in what happened next. In Uncle Billy’s version, Dwight spotted Ellie on one of his visits to the Lanes and started coming around in hope of seeing her. My grandfather’s account (taken from his memoir, which, though written at age 92, is filled with impossibly specific dates and details) describes Ellie spying Dwight in the driveway and then making a point of being on her back porch when he stopped by.

In any case: They started dating and were engaged shortly thereafter.

(“Her scheme must have worked,” my grandfather wrote.)

Here, the details diverge again, in fact if not in spirit. In my father’s telling, Ellie’s father picked out a house he thought Dwight should buy for his daughter and settle down in. In my grandfather’s version, Ellie’s mother intercepted Dwight at the train station when he came home from work—he was an office boy and, eventually, national sales manager at a baking soda company in New York City—and pointed out potential houses as they made their way home.

Maybe both things happened; either would have been an affront to Dwight’s intractable Maine-bred independence. It’s well-documented that, on his first day at the University of Maine, he was reprimanded by some upperclassmen for talking to a girl he knew from home. When told where and when to report for hazing, Dwight packed his bags, left, and never returned.

Whichever version is truer, the end result is the same: Ellie’s parents overstepped their boundaries—or Dwight perceived they had—and he decided he wasn’t getting married after all.

When I first heard this story, after Ellie died, it came as a complete surprise. Not just that Dwight and Ellie had been engaged for their entire adult lives but that they’d been romantically involved at all. I was 15. To the extent I’d paid any attention to their dynamic, I had never linked the two of them in any way. This seems odd now, looking back. But at the time, their being a couple never occurred to me. Maybe because Dwight lived at Irene’s house. Maybe because a single, older aunt didn’t seem that strange. Maybe because Dwight seemed rough around the edges, obdurate and idiosyncratic, while Ellie was the picture of refinement. When she died, they’d been engaged for 52 years.

The story struck me as totally depressing. Young Ellie, her marriage called off, hanging around for decades in hope that Dwight might change his mind. She was a teller in the bank where my grandfather worked. She had no children of her own. Dwight came over every evening, evidently; she cooked him dinner and he went home. She had Frank Sinatra’s autograph in a frame above her fireplace. She lived in her parents’ house, the one with the garage apartment, until she died.

Of course, I was filling in the blanks, and in all the most obvious ways. Mine was an easy story—one of compromise, of settling, a cautionary tale. When I first started jotting it down, in classrooms with my students, I was in graduate school, 22 and casually single; with the exception of my name, Ellie’s story felt like it had little to do with me.

As time went on, though, I felt increasingly aware that, according to popular convention, there was another life I should be living—coupling, buying a house, having babies. I was unmarried for all of my 20s and well into my 30s. I would get married eventually, I thought; I was content on my own. In hindsight, I suspect this was part of my fascination with (and vague anxiety about) the story of Ellie. A single woman living alone in a big house seemed not an inappropriate namesake for me.

As I got older, Ellie’s story struck me as far less straightforward, subject to varying interpretations:

There’s the version in which Ellie cooks Dwight dinner every evening, then feels lonely as she washes the dishes, listening to the sound of his Chevrolet Caprice Classic rolling down the street.

There’s the one in which she enjoys her nightly conversation, his companionship, then listens to the contented hum of the night outside her window while she brushes her long hair.

I wonder now if there was a conversation in which Dwight said he didn’t want to get married and Ellie refused to call off the engagement. Or, if Dwight avoided that conversation completely. Or, if it was something far less explicit, less dramatic. According to Aunt Paula, not long after Dwight returned from World War II—he was an Army supply sergeant in Europe—Ellie’s father got sick, and Ellie took care of him. Then her mother got sick, and she did the same for her. Maybe the assumption was that they’d get married once Ellie no longer had her parents to care for—and by then they were too settled into their routines. Maybe their relationship just naturally evolved into the one it ultimately became.

According to anyone I ask, Ellie seemed happy; it’s one of the first words people use to describe her. Naturally, whether this means she was actually happy is impossible to know. But however disenchanted she may have felt about the way her life turned out, to break with conventional expectations of a woman in the 1940s, 1950s seems proof of her mettle. She didn’t seem embarrassed by her odd-looking arrangement. She and Dwight saw each other nightly, presumably enjoyed each other’s company. In his memoir, my grandfather describes how the “girls at the bank” threw Ellie anniversary-of-the-engagement parties at the regal Shadowbrook Inn to celebrate 25, 40, 50 years.

When I share this story on the first day of my classes, it elicits chuckles from my students. Sometimes a light gasp of surprise, a sympathetic “Aww.” The reaction depends on how I write it, which has changed over time. As the world looks different and my world looks different—in my late 30s, I settled into a more conventional life: husband, baby, mortgage—Ellie’s does too. Some details have remained constant, so constant I’m no longer sure they bear much resemblance to reality: always there is Dwight on the couch, the dog, the loose change. Always Ellie’s shimmery legs and sculpted hair. Each time, I conclude with the reveal of the engagement, but here the tone has altered most significantly—from the early versions, in which poor Ellie settled for a kind of shadow life to Ellie, a woman who was quietly radical, an outlier, ahead of her time.

But no matter the version, or how determinedly I retell it, I can see it has little effect on my students. Maybe it’s a flaw in the narration—too saggy and inconclusive. Maybe they sense I’m writing the story more for me than for them. Maybe the description of a great-uncle and his dead parakeet strikes them, quite rightly, as an odd thing to be learning about their professor in the first 30 minutes of class. Or else they’re too young, too far outside the old cultural norms for Ellie’s life to strike them as so defiant. Maybe the tale of a 52-year engagement feels—as it did to me, at 18—like a story from a distant past.

Recently, feeling nostalgic, I dug up the first story I ever published. I’d written it when I was in college and hadn’t read it in years. What I found, not unexpectedly, was that the prose felt freer, the story (like me, then) more dramatic and less self-aware. It was about a nameless young woman with a terrible boyfriend. It was also, to my greater surprise, about Ellie and Dwight.

In the story, the young woman has a fight with the terrible boyfriend and then goes alone to the funeral of her great-uncle, who is named Dwight. At the cemetery, she talks with her great-aunt Irene, whose husband is also buried there. Do you remember my Harry, dear? He used to take me dancing, she says. The dogs are accounted for, the loose change, the parakeet. In the story, Irene doesn’t wear black to the funeral because she doesn’t own any; it’s not a detail I recall from real life but one that feels true.

The only character whose name I changed was Ellie’s—to Ella, a gesture almost comically slight. Ella had a beehive of gray hair and Frank Sinatra’s autograph above the fireplace. She’d been Dwight’s fiancée for 52 years. In this version, Dwight had a change of heart about getting married while in the Navy, then came home and simply avoided Ellie until she figured out he’d changed his mind.

Waited a whole lifetime for my brother to come knocking for her again, Irene tells the narrator. He never did, of course, but she was just like one of the family. She was your namesake, you know.

Was this based in part on an actual conversation I had with Irene, one I no longer remember? Or were these my own projections? I suspect some of both. At the end of the story, the narrator is so moved by this encounter—with old age, deep loss, true love—that she breaks up with her boyfriend and moves in with Irene.

In the final scene, they sit by the ocean; Ella plays the flute, and Irene applauds. It’s a bizarre ending, rendered with utter earnestness. I would keep rewriting it for the next 25 years. Ellie’s narrative would change, keep changing, the real story impossible to know. Ultimately, I didn’t need to. It wasn’t mine after all.

Image credit: Unsplash/Kelly Sikkema.

’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Missouri Review, Ploughshares, Electric Literature, The Millions, Good Housekeeping, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Hudson Review, Harvard Review, and numerous other publications. Her short stories have been cited by The Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies, and she is the recipient of the Alice Hoffman Prize from Ploughshares. Juska is the author of the novels The Blessings, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and If We Had Known, released last spring.

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