Throwing Pennies

Creative Nonfiction by Cassie Mannes Murray

When the ultrasound technician adjusted the wand and said, “oop, it’s a boy” my first thought, the first thing I said to my partner in the deliberately shadowed room was, “how do we raise a non-toxic white boy in the South?” It was my immediate and most primary concern. It was a response that infused my world view; the list of horrors that came to mind of what this unborn boy could be became a red ticker tape scroll below a newscaster. I imagined him already a teenager, shallow and sunken purple pockets below his eyes in a mugshot, for what, it didn’t matter, but the eyes themselves—empty.

In that response was the culture of the internet—a collective conscience, my mind static with the deranged “forefather” politics of white men; the recent, and near constant desperation I felt listening to 24 hour news. Also popping in: thoughts from my ever-looming past, and the pressures on women by someone’s white Jesus instilled in me in churches growing up in North Carolina—the idea that I needed to be “saved” from something imminent and harrowing: the damsel or the mother or the whore. The one always doing that saving, a white man. White men, what were they, but little lords? The mugshot snapped into my brain—for a boy I have only seen on screen through high frequency sound waves—surely photographed for an act of taking. And then, my mind’s finger gliding over a yearbook of white boys who took advantage. My silence, or my white noise because there is no trauma without a constant static in the background, the fact that girls like me were taught to martyr ourselves for their future. My son, one of them.

The Mayo Clinic says medical sonography produces “images of the structures within our body” and the sound waves “echo to form pictures of the tissues.” This is his body at its most pristine, we think, before any life wounds visible or not can adorn it. There’s the woofing noise of the ultrasound machine that’s muted so the sounds of our awe are the only thing in the room, but I cry silently thinking about the high-pitched, drawn-out ring I sometimes hear in the nowhere distance before I fall asleep, anxiety like a low-whistling tea kettle or a train on the side of town I’m told as a white woman not to go—the sound I always take as a warning.

The red scroll goes on: school shooters, white policemen kneeling on the necks of their citizens, privilege, privilege, privilege, without justice, justice, justice.

When I later Google “attributes of Pisces men” as my son has an early March due date, the response is overwhelmingly “emotionally manipulative”—and I struggle to find ways, not with how I might feed this baby, how I might nurture his innate sensibilities and interests, but how I might help him become not all this.

After wiping my belly with a Bounty sheet, the ultrasound technician asks, “do you have a name picked out?”

When we couldn’t agree on a name, we looked to our interests. As an avid reader, I looked to literature. BJ, my partner, a blonde man with cheeky dimples which everyone proclaims must be passed down to this baby, a man never without his NCSU ball cap, who followed the Disco Biscuits on tour during a semester of college, looked to music. His ticket stubs and band posters littering his office from when he spent summers with his father and brother at music festivals like Jazz Fest, sweaty bandanas around their necks and foreheads, bobbing to classic Americana. Our first nursery decoration is dotting our son’s ceiling with twenty records we purchased for .75 cents each at the local Goodwill. We dug through plastic tubs to try to find the paper circles at the center with the most color. They range from Broadway to Irish folk songs.

For me, with stacks of books at my feet in my own office, I dream of finding the perfect character that would represent all a man could become. Early in pregnancy, I lost my ability to focus on plot and sentences while reading physical books, and ended up listening to audiobooks throughout—spending significant time on the Wizard of Oz compendium while thinking about the character trait posters on my elementary school’s cork boards. What was important: courage, perseverance, responsibility, integrity. I wanted a grocery store basket of these traits for my son, but also hoped for a near exact replica of BJ. I told my best friend, “THIS was my chance to have a TWO-FER.”

To BJ, I suggested names like Wilde for Oscar Wilde—names that represented what this boy could be outside of some definition of masculinity: eccentric, alone but not lonely, cheeky. I even tried Lion halfway through The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. BJ said no to both. I wrote down Sawyer and then had misgivings about the near-automatic Mark Twain connection. I didn’t steer clear of any genres, but I spent hours researching the potential names of characters, authors, and their associations with misogyny, abuse, neglect, lies, and other horrors.  I wanted a name for our son that had a legacy, but I didn’t quite know why.

We landed on the names of two southern men, like a poem produced with an after—Tom Petty and my grandfather, Henry Lafayette. Both with ties to Gainesville, Florida, and both at times fighting for sobriety, something my partner’s journey also shared. Tom Petty is one of BJ’s favorite musicians, a love he learned from his own father. Our child would be Petty Lafayette—a name we knew would be controversial for how “petty” is defined as “small”—a kind of reduction, but also the current connotation of the word: trivial, trifling, childish. When I see the word petty appear online, or hear it in the mouths of friends, it always aligns with the negative. Being someone who fears what raising a white boy entails, I thought a name like Petty might curb some entitlement. The name only made us stubborn.

It was my idea. Petty Murray was my idea, produced from the air one night on the couch as I read through a list of obscure names on my laptop, a mix of our family tree, Irish lineage, musicians, and book characters. When I read back through my diary, the month before the pregnancy test revealed two pink lines, every single day I wrote “I hope I’m pregnant”—he was my idea before he was a bundle of cells. And with a name, he felt greater than just an idea. I started talking to him in the shower, rocking back and forth underneath the hot water, singing him bad pop songs from the radio, waiting for him to press back when I pushed a few fingers into the side of my belly.

My only fear was fellow North Carolinians assuming he was named for Richard Petty, the Nascar driver—known as “The King.” This Petty had the opposite impact of what I wanted for my son. Richard Petty is a Reagan Republican, a distinction that used to mean I had the ability to converse politically with someone, those who were known as “fiscally conservative,” and now, means nothing. In 2016, Richard Petty appeared on stage with Donald Trump, an unacceptable connection to any child of mine, and proof I would be severing that connection to my son in conversations for the rest of my life. Did I want that, having to say what he’s not before he could become what he will be? We make so many choices for our children before they arrive, I wondered how many of those choices I would have to base in fears of not this. The name stuck.

Lafayette was my grandfather’s middle name. He was a man who moved north to Buffalo for work, a parallel decision that prevented him from embracing the klan methodology of his Gainesville brothers. As an electrician, he helped build the power plant at Niagara Falls, he was very proud of that, my mom says. I think of the Falls on the unofficial list of world wonders, each I hope Petty sees in his lifetime. Tom Petty too, had his own reckoning with the South. During his Southern Accents tour in 1985, the confederate flag flew prominently on stage.

In 2015, after South Carolina finally lowered the flag from their statehouse, Tom Petty outlined his regrets in an interview with Rolling Stone. In the interview, he called the flag “like wallpaper in Gainesville,” and that “the South had adopted it as a logo.” He explains his use of the flag like this, “It happened because I had one song on the album called ‘Rebels.’ It’s spoken from the point of view of the character, who talks about the traditions that have been handed down from family to family for so long that he almost feels guilty about the war. He still blames the North for the discomfort of his life, so my thought was the best way to illustrate this character was to use the Confederate flag.” After someone threw a flag bandana on stage, Petty gave a speech about the flag not representing who they are, and though he received boo’s from the audience, he claims to have never seen a rebel flag on his tours again.

My grandfather, nicknamed “Bully” had so many qualities I think of as southern masculine—he enjoyed bone soup, cowboy dinner, and frog gigging. He knew how to shoot a gun and stare into a glass of beer until he swore he saw his reflection. In today’s terms, he would have been a “good ol’ boy.” What my brother so aptly calls, “white trash.” When I’m a child, all I want to do is play with the crawfish in the neighborhood creek, cup them into my palms like an angel in prayer and play that game where you say “this is the church, this is the steeple, open it up and see all the people” only to loose them into the cool waters where I stand barefoot against the least mossy rock. I am always afraid of slipping further in, though I’m a good swimmer and the water’s depth is only up to my knees in parts. This, I have come to believe, is the current running through my grandfather to me—to the Pisces fish I carry.

Henry Lafayette, Petty’s namesake, was also a drunk with PTSD before it could be named, who my mother adored when he was sober—calling him gentle, a storyteller, a small man who I never met. Dead before I was born. Not quite what folks might imagine for name inspiration, but the way my mother talks about him is the way I want my son to be known. We didn’t know when we chose Lafayette as a middle name that Petty’s due date is my grandfather’s birthday, but now it seems more than coincidence. Lafayette also for the years my partner’s family lived in New Orleans, his mother’s passed down crawfish etouffee always on the tip of his tongue when asked what he wants for holiday dinner.

When we get pushback on the baby’s name, we stubbornly dig our heels in. My brother, a lawyer, says “petty criminal, petty officer, petty grievance” to prove there is no goodness from a name like that. Folks pull my mom aside where she works in a grocery store and say, “you’ve got to talk to them again” after she tells them our son’s name. People sleep on it, and tell us it still feels wrong. BJ’s grandmother, while unwrapping Christmas gifts, says, “I’m sorry, I don’t like the name, I’m just going to say it loud and proud—I’m going to call him Sam.” A few breaths later, she complains about not receiving “the right” Trump book from her daughter-in-law, and none of us volunteer to purchase it. Sam, a funny choice, the poster of the bearded man in the top hat pointing at us for military recruitment, or Frodo’s best friend, his backbone to Mordor.

But what BJ and I didn’t forget in choosing a name is the power of names in the South, that ability to link ourselves to a lineage, and with that lineage, the losses of those around us. Black friends who can only trace their history to a parcel of land and a white man’s name—a huge loss.

I have traced my family back to our hauntings. Research will show me grave markers, census data, war records, and will let me keep digging into small metaphorical leaves and internet rabbit holes until I’m one thousand years in, and a thousand leagues away. I’m still uncovering my family’s history. Most recently, through letters produced by my great-great-great grandfather housed in the LSU Special Collections which document his fight for the confederacy, his religious beholdings, his early courtship with his eventual wife, and his daily life as an enslaver.

The fact of it is, I can know. Even when I don’t want to know. But what does it mean to not have that knowledge—to not be able to trace yourself? My family, in archives, has no beginning or end, no stopping point. Yet the lives of others and their documented history have brackets of white space. What we might think of on the page as a place for breath is instead a kind of wasteland. I can only attempt to understand that space through art, through reading, through voices not my own—to feel for the breath my family tried to erase.

I have been learning that it doesn’t make me more worthy of anything—to know. Knowing is finite. To not know is always the bigger burden. Burden: another word we have turned negative though it isn’t inherently so. We are all carrying histories like paper cuts, cultivating our own in the thin slice leftover. Trying to settle within, beside, or above our ghosts. Granulation tissue forcing the wound inward until we, some of us, choose to forget it was ever there. Whiteness is just the fibers of new tissue, the ability to gloss over. I realized I wanted Petty to have a legacy so he couldn’t refuse the history he carries, look down at his hands and call everyone else’s story, anyone else’s story, healed.

With the name pushback, we did make a change. We added a second middle name, four names total, and another Southern musician—Otis Redding. A famous soul musician raised in Georgia with hits like “(Sittin on’) the dock of the bay” and “These Arms of Mine.” His greatest hits album was the earliest record BJ and I bought together when we were first dating. Adding this name, for me, is to add a little tenderness.

Tom Petty called songwriting “fishing” and said in an LA Times interview with Randy Lewis in 2017, “It’s kind of a lonely work…because you just have to keep your pole in the water. I always had a little routine of going into whatever room I was using at the time to write in, and just staying in there till I felt like I got a bite.” Otis Redding says he, “made the dock my home.” My grandfather gigged with a flashlight and fast hands. There I am in that creek turning over stones. Petty floats, as I write this, in a shrinking amount of amniotic fluid—sways in the canoe my body has made for him.

But is the name Redding also an out? Now, Petty will have more of a choice on how people perceive him on first impression. There’s privilege here: resumes, hand shakes, deciding who he’ll be depending on the groups he finds himself in. A privilege after the very first one, the color of his skin. Our son, Petty Redding Lafayette Murray—altogether meaning little red tree by the sea—in hopes he won’t be broken into a composite of parts, but looked at for the whole of his story—I drowned in the thought that there’s not a single person allowed to be perceived this way.

Though I gave up monograms years ago, when BJ and I were married it was a big deal to family and friends that I was keeping my last name, that I would have two. Both given to me by men, passed down patrilineally, it seemed there was no winning from a feminism perspective. However, I was determined to keep the signifier of who I was before this man, and who I would be beside him. The women in my family all said the same thing, “at least it’s still M, at least the monogram won’t change.”

Is this reaction a need to find ourselves, to cling to belonging in some small way? These are our kin, this is where we come from—their fists held tight to what’s known, what can be survived and cursed through a name—what is a complicated contortion of past and present. But water runs through it, and each generation (I hope) fractures damaging strongholds or cracks open new seeds of thought.

The reliance on a last name can feel like immediate exclusion, particularly in a South that wants to remain a small town, where I say my name at the doctor’s office and if my accent sits right, they ask if I know my father-in-law. A name in the right place is what makes someone known—but why does that also make them automatically “good?” Good by association.

We are again and again as white people only handing one another what’s already been and calling it built. We are afraid to lift the rock and look under it—it is easier to make judgment an assembly line, what was “good” in the person or parent that came before you, must then make you good. We’re shocked again and again by white boy school shooters, who so often have abused former girlfriends—Brock Turner’s mother, who has changed her last name on Facebook, is a member of the Facebook group WAR: women against the sex offender registry. I don’t want to say that families are to blame, it’s more nuanced than that, but I want to say our degrees of connection to one another, whether by name or community proximity, have everything and nothing to do with who we become. How diverse are our circles, how much stock do we put in the ideologies passed down to us, how far away or how close can we get to them before they’re an unchanged foundation like the marble of a monument? I want my son, like Tom Petty, to see opportunity for change, and to speak it only after he’s listened—to have the patience to wait for a bite, knowing he has a song in his pocket, but allow others to sing their own, to wade in the water too.

In an American Songwriter interview, Tom Petty talked about leaving the South, “[The South], it’s a very romantic place, but it’s also a spooky place. You’d think a lot of ghosts still linger down there. I’d written about the South years ago. And I wondered, ‘What would I write now? Now that I’ve been gone so long?” I worry often about the worlds I don’t know, the layers of cultural misunderstandings I come up against when reading, my inability to speak other languages, the things I can’t see in a text because my world is white-washed.

Sometimes I never want this boy to leave my belly, instead he can cleave to my ribs until I can no longer breathe—the tools I have to teach him, will they be enough for him to, at the very least, admit when he’s wrong, allow space for others to speak, to carry an ugly past into the present and know not to use that history as a defense mechanism? I think about the woofing of the ultrasound machine, the way the woman in our birthing classes tells us to say “hush, hush, hush, hush” into our baby’s ear because it sounds like the safety of the uterus where he floats—will he listen?

When I imagine our future, the three of us now and our choir of ghosts, I fret about the grade school assignment where students research their name. I think of all the kids whose name story is as lovely as their grandmother said it and it was so, or it’s a fusion of two names—a hyphen because we contain multitudes, or their name’s history hasn’t been created yet, a creation that lives in their body first, being made everyday—how we can imagine a change in our root systems, or even better—new roots, by something as simple and profound as a name.

I don’t yet know what it means to give my son a name that already has three ghosts, that can be twisted in the mouth of someone who wants to hurt him, that is consistently used to insult. But I don’t know anyone in the American South who lives without ghosts? While I wish more of us would reckon with our ghosts, would choose to hear them, I think the one thing I can do is to try to raise a white boy who is not savior or conqueror or defendant, but a boy who knows he’s only whole when everyone’s story is getting told at the same breadth and depth of his own. A boy who doesn’t swim while others beside him are sinking. A boy who asks to hear or knows when to hush.

When I fret about that grade school assignment where students research the history of their name, BJ says our son will talk about Tom Petty, about free fallin’, not backing down, belonging among wildflowers. I hope he learns to water, and then gives his bouquet away.

<strong>Cassie Mannes Murray</strong>
Cassie Mannes Murray

Cassie Mannes Murray is a writer from the south. She received a notable in Best American Essays 2020, and her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, StoryQuarterly, Joyland, Hobart, Fugue, Slice Magazine, and Passages North. You can find her on Twitter @cassmannes.

3 responses to “Throwing Pennies”

  1. I am the grandmother of this new human named Petty. I admit to being against the name, but as the pregnancy bloomed, Petty became a part of me too. I will do my best to fill Petty with empathy, kindness, perseverance, and an open heart.