cellophane flowers of yellow and green

9/22/06

On the Odd Journey of Names:

In 1966, Julian Lennon, John’s son, brought home a watercolor drawing of stars surrounding a girl he sat next to at school. John asked what it was, and Julian replied, “it’s Lucy in the sky!” Thus the inspiration for “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” which was constantly misread as a code name for LSD. The song went on to define psychedelic pop for the period and became one of the most famous songs in the canon.

In 1974, Donald Johanson discovered the skeleton of an early hominid woman while they were digging in Ethiopia. It was one of the biggest discoveries in anthropological history, and while they were celebrating, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” came on the radio, and thus they named their skeleton “Lucy.”

I first got interested in the Lucy bones when I went to Africa in 1981, where I got to meet Richard Leakey, who signed his book “Origins” for me, and basically went out of his way to make a shy 13-year-old feel worthwhile.

Meanwhile, Lucy came to mean the entire race of Australopithecus afarensis, who lived 3.2 million years ago. Last week, scientists revealed the bones of a child found near the original Lucy, calling it the oldest child fossil in existence. Slate ran the headline Little Lucy’s Debut.

australopithecus.jpg

as an adult, only 3.5 feet tall

This means the transition animal between ape and human, the very creatures that eventually make you and me, are named after a girl who sat next to Julien Lennon in pre-school: Lucy O’Donnell, born in 1963 and now 43 years old, living in Surbiton in Surry, England, running a nanny agency.

My little Lucy gets her name from Nonnie (Lucille Tessman), and from my great-great-grandmother Lucy Rigby. I also loved the Peanuts cartoons as a kid, which gave us Lucy van Pelt. But also deep in there is the memory of a man in Africa whose peers dug up Lucy from millions of years ago, and was one of the first adults who treated me like I had something to say. I’ll always be so grateful for the way he talked to me that day, and I won’t forget to tell my daughter all about it.

YahooPicsLadies.jpg

detail of the Yahoo! Most Emailed Stories page where I got the picture – bizarre cultural statement, eh?

0 thoughts on “cellophane flowers of yellow and green

  1. Neva

    I’ve always thought that the way someone names their child says a lot about them, their values, etc. I personally have always been glad I was named for an interesting family member and didn’t just get a name because “we liked it”. I tried to extend that to my kids who both have names with stories and family origins. Lucy is very lucky to have lots behind her name (and it’s still not too weird to say or spell!). Of course, there will be times she wishes her name was something else (in my day it was Jennifer – now it’s probably Katelyn or Madison or something like that!)..
    Neva

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  2. Neva

    Doesn’t it look like the African Lucy is wearing high heels not unlike the model beside her? Weird…
    But not as weird as the guy who pops out his eyeballs on that same photo link page!

    Reply
  3. Anne

    Ian, I love the way you told this story. Nice connections.
    I wonder if a man drew that prototype of the prehistoric Lucy. Why? Because of the rack! That early on in the journey from ape to human, would adult females actually have had big pendulous boobs?
    Just asking. :-)

    Reply
  4. Salem

    I think you touched on a great “code word” subject. The way Richard Leakey listened to 13 year old Ian was the right medicine at the right time. I think we have all had moments in our childhood that may seem mundane to everyone else involved, and yet we hold them dear as a touchstone for the rest of our lives.
    When I was thirteen our Commandant (military boarding school) was faced with a conflict between myself and another student. There were no witnesses. It was his word against mine. I was telling the truth and the other student was lying. The Commandant did not hedge. He believed me without question. In that simple act of trust he did not validate my integrity, he forged it.
    I wonder how many others have had similar moments?

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  5. xuxE

    i think intuitive people probably know when the stars align to give their kid the correct name. for all the other Lucy’s out there, the name may mean something totally different. they could love it or hate it or their parents could be totally indifferent about it.
    i don’t dis what anybody names their kid, although i’m particularly annoyed with prep-school type pretentious naming styles that sound like romance novels. but even for folks with that t, what ultimately matters is how the parent tries to encourage their child to feel proud and inspired and special. naming is this first real gift in this direction, i think.
    i think family origin names give your kid that link to history that they may never personally know, and i think it’s grounding. my husband and i both linked our sons’ middle names to our grandmothers for that reason.
    but i still think that even people i know who have totally made up names or combined different names to make a new name and picked names purely for aesthetic reasons, etc., are trying to bestow something of beauty or strength or respect or something to their kid, in their own way.
    my mom saw the movie black orpheus when she was pregnant with me, and she named me accordingly. i don’t think in 10 million years she would have imagined i would grow up to marry a black musician, but i always felt that my name had this incredibly significant deep meaning that made me unique because of the mythology. of course it wasn’t the only way my parents made me feel this way, but i think it was kind of emblematic and somehow helped define who i was – before i was completely capable of even knowing that for myself.

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  6. salem's little sister

    I love using family names as a sign of respect and tradition. I am named Kathryn after my paternal grandmother who was named after her mother and her mother, and so on down the line. Ben’s middle name is Wicker after mine and Salem’s dad. His middle name was Wicker which was his mother’s maiden name. I like that Wicker is different and could spark a conversation about its origin. I look forward to the day that I can explain to Ben who he is named for and tell him all about his granddaddy who sees him from Heaven. How do I know he watches over him you may ask? My favorite theory is the fact that I found out I was pregnant on the 13th anniversay of his death. I knew he was going to be a boy because of that as well. Hokey but true.

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  7. NOLAcathie

    I love the name “LUCY” because it’s my precious granddaughter’s name. Its Latin derivative, “lux/lucis,” means “light” and ever since the day she was born, she has filled all of our lives with her extraordinary light. I believe her smile could solve at least half of the world’s problems!
    Ian, I can see that your Lucy does the same.

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