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Florence in Words

To Be Or Not To Be 84

I like odd numbers, and so 84 is not a favorite. Numbers interest me. I am fascinated by how often the number eleven seems to crop up in my life. It’s eerie that for more than 25 years I have sat in K111 at the ballet, and on planes I don’t have to ask for seat A11—I am often placed there. I once had a friend who taught me to add numbers, to note, for example, that eleven is also two and one hundred and eleven is also three. She also taught me to translate the letters of the alphabet into numbers and to continue adding numbers and letters so that eventually all addresses reduce to a single digit of 1 to 9. What does it all mean? I wish I knew. I played with all of it just to see if my brain could focus itself this way.

So, to return to 84: it reduces to 12, which in turn reduces to 3. So 84 becomes an odd finite number that can’t be reduced further. What does that mean? I don’t know the answer to that either. But my friend used to urge that I was a 5, not a 3 or anything else, not even my favorite 7. But I would say I love sevens, elevens, thirteens, seventeens, and versions of them. Again, a nonsense? Probably.

But nonsense is necessary especially when gloom is the alternative. And right now I need nonsense to divert me from life around me: two dear friends very ill, and the son of another dear friend. I am responsible for the care of one of these persons, and so anxiety rules my body, creating palpitations, odd pressures in my chest, tensions in my back and shoulders. I’ve always felt strain as palpably as I do now that I am an old lady.

In two days I will be 84—on the 17th of March, St. Patrick’s Day. I should have been named Patricia but for my mother’s insistence that Patricia wasn’t “a Jewish name.” She named me after a dead relative named Frieda, though because she didn’t like that name, she chose Florence instead. When I was twelve, I learned that Florence was a city in Italy, and came home to present that information to my mother. Her response was crisp and to her point, “There must be a lot of Jews living there,” she said.

It’s never been a name I liked, though I never thought to change it or shorten it. Only my brother called me “Florrie.” My father called me “Sissie.” No one called me “Flo” or “Flossie.” When, in the U.S. I’ve met someone named “Florence,” she is exactly my age. So something was happening in 1929, but what?

In the late 1990s I was in Uganda, trying to help a women’s studies committee plan an international conference to be held in Kampala. I introduced myself as “Florence,” said a few words about prior international conferences in the series, and waited for the others around the table to introduce themselves. The next five women who introduced themselves said, “My name is Florence.” Before the sixth woman could speak, I interrupted: “In 30 years of international meetings, the only Florence I have ever met is your women’s studies director. But how is it that five others of you here are also named Florence?” And then I was told that Florence was a very popular name in Uganda, and that they were surprised to hear me say that name, since they didn’t think it was American. A nonsense? Yes, probably, just like the numbers game. Also a distraction, necessary this evening, this weekend, given the circumstances.
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