I was a mid-summer baby,
not a Yankee Doodle Dandy
but born on the Fourth of July.
I arrived, they said, not quite on cue
but two warm days too late.
I made my entrance while still unnamed
(my father wanted Pauline)
but Paulines wear cardigans
hand-knitted in pale pastels
and fastened by dainty pearl buttons.
They must have taken one quick peek
and right away known
that wasn’t me.
Matilda Jane Ottley was fifty-four,
my father’s formidable mother.
Never a beauty, already grown stout,
her birthday fell two days before.
I should have been christened for her, so she thought;
in her mind there was no issue, no question;
I should have been Matilda Jane;
or Matilda, or Jane, at least.
It was not to be: the die was cast
their battle lines were drawn;
my mother dug her heels in deep
and would not budge an inch.
“Gail,” she said. “Her name is Gail.”
(My father still hankered after Pauline.)
“Gail?” said his mother,”‘what kind of name is that?
It blows about your ears like a wind.”
But Gail it was. I hated it.
In Estuarine, it came out: Gow-ull.
So, across the playground, children brayed
the long, drawn out discord of my name.
I envied pretty girls called Gloria;
even yearned for Pauline, after all.
Only my father’s mother spoke of me softly,
calling me her pretty one, her pumpkin.
She would dandle me on her ample lap
and whisper to her “sweet Matilda Jane.”
And so it went on, this hard-fought war
in which I was the kingdom and the prize;
until, age twenty, I beat them back
and claimed it for my own.
“Abigail,” I told them. “Abi for short.”
It is likely I will die now an Abigail.
Still, my grandmother knew,
and I know in my heart,
I should be Matilda.
AUTHOR’S NOTE ON THE PHOTOGRAPH: Me and Matilda Jane Ottley c. 1972, at about the age I declared myself an Abigail. Matilda, or Tilly, as she was mostly known, hated having her photograph taken so this is one of the very few images I have. She was the woman who taught me never to quit and to fight always against injustice. She will always be a loving presence in my heart. My own daughter now carries her name.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Abigail Wyatt was born and raised in Essex but has lived most of her adult life in Cornwall. She writes poetry and short fiction which she performs together with her singer-songwriter partner, David Rowland, as The Fool and the Liar. Since 2007, when she first began submitting her work, she has been published in more than 100 journals, magazines, and anthologies. Until recently, she was editor of the online poetry journal Poetry24.