When my parents first named me Kateri Tanis Stuart, I don’t think they would have ever imagined how little people actually used it. In fact, I’ve only ever been referred to by my full name once. But, that’s a long time from now.
I was born in my grandparents’ winter cabin up in North Dakota. It wasn’t my mother’s wisest decisions to spend the weekend there when she was already a week overdue. They said I was a miracle child. Born from a desperate, formally-infertile mother (she went through a LOT of fertility treatments). Only under the starlight from a glinting window was the reflection of my plump, baby face first seen—because a split second after I was born, the power went out.
The first person to speak was my grandfather. In his old Native American tongue, he muttered. “The star-baby has stolen all the light.”
That was the first name I was called. Soon after that night, my family forgot the name Kateri and called me Star-baby.
Star-baby was a wild child. She would chase rabbits and catch grasshoppers. Once, she caught a grasshopper as plump as a fat finger. She named him Achak and kept him in a jar under her bed. A couple of days later, Star-baby called him dead. She forgot to pop holes in the top of the jar. Star-baby cried for three days after Achak’s funeral. That was the first time she ever experienced real grief.
Every Sunday she and her mother would walk to the creek and skip stones across the water’s delicate surface. She flung upwards of three rocks at a time into the water. Every time Star-baby did, she swiveled back to her mother with an overzealous smile on her face. She pointed a the river and cheered. “Did you see what I did? It skipped! It skipped!”
It didn’t skip. Not once. But her mother would always give her the same polite smile and nod her head.
All the fish in the pond hated Star-baby. They probably thought I was a demon-child, not a star-baby.
And she’s not who I am anymore.
When I was eight, I was sent to a boarding school six hours from my home. My grandfather was a bit obsessed with education He insisted that I go to an all-girls boarding school like the one my mother attended when she was my age.
“Star-baby,” he addressed to me the day I left. I was holding a metal lunchbox with a fairy on it. “Knowledge is power. Too many of us have been hurt because they changed the rules. Learn the rules. Destroy them using their own strength.”
At the time, I had no idea what he was talking about. But, I think it had something to do with my mother becoming a lawyer.
On my first day of school, I learned of this weird thing called attendance where they called your name to see if you were there. It was such a strange concept to me. We lived at that school. Never allowed out. Where else could we be?
I wobbled back in my chair, balancing on the edge. I thought I was star-baby, not Kateri. I burned brighter than the sun. I was reckless. I was young.
“Kateri?” My teacher called out.
I kept wobbling.
“Kateri?” Ms. Thomson repeated.
One of my classmates eyed the name tag tapped to my desk and nudged me. “That’s you,” she whispered.
“Me?” I pointed at myself.
Ms. Thomson snapped her attendance book shut with a sharp crack!, like a whip. I straightened my chair and looked her dead in the eyes.
“You’re supposed to say ‘here’,” classmate #2 told me.
“HERE!” I shouted at the top of my lungs.
A circus of snickers followed. Ms. Thomson’s sensible shoes clacked down the aisle to me. “I know this your first day of school, but we have a certain set of rules you must follow, young lady.”
And just like that, she returned to the lesson. But the whispers didn’t stop.
“I’ve never seen you before,” a girl whispered. “Where are you from?”
“The Lake Traverse Reservation.”
“Why didn’t you answer at attendance?”
“So, your name is…” She glanced at my name tag. “Ka-keeri? How do you pronounce it?”
I shrugged again. How should I know? This was the first time I’ve heard it.
“We should just call you Katie instead,” another kid chipped in.
“Katie…” I echoed. I kind of liked it.
For the rest of my days at that stuffy academy full of clacking teachers and nosy kids, I became Katie--the most meddlesome of all.
Katie dashed through five minutes after curfew. Without a second thought, she back talked teachers and always gave her truest opinion. Detention was like a second home.
Her mother once had to drive up from the Lake Traverse Reservation to get lectured about her parenting skills. They told her that Katie was a bully, that she shoved some kid named Davin. But it wasn’t her fault! Davin started it! He took her cookies! Pushed down Jenna--Katie’s friend. And shoved Katie into a wall to be the first to lunch. So, she shoved back. Harder. Since, Davin was the one to fall on the floor, Katie was the one to fall in detention.
Katie’s mother smiled politely at the teachers, while glancing at Katie through the corner of her eye. Then, she lured them into a closed room without Katie and locked the door. The sounds were muffled from the outside, but she still knew who was yelling at who now. They never bothered her mother after that.
It was pretty sweet to have a lawyer mom because they’re always on your side. And she was pretty damn good at it.
Despite the fact that I was almost got held back a grade for dumping jello mix into the indoor pool, I managed to graduate and get accepted to a decent college. Even my grandfather came down to see the impossible Katie graduated from 12 grade. While the principal handed at diplomas, my heart nearly skipped a beat when he called my name. “Katie Stuart!” His voice boomed. That was just who I was to him.
But that’s not who I am anymore.
I didn’t go to college with anyone from the academy. They all had better grades or different dreams. In a total of eight years of college, I spent five at Sisseton Wahpeton College getting an undergraduate degree. There, I met my first girlfriend and former roommate, Maria.
“Kitty Kat~!” Maria cooed every time she saw me.
It was infatuation, not love. We lasted three months before she transferred to a state college.
While we dated, everyone else around us gagged. Some with envy in their eyes. They called me Kat. College is too rushed to have anything longer than a one syllable name.
Kitty Kat, or Kat, was careless and half-drunk on love and alcohol. On Fridays, she showed up at lectures in hello-kitty fuzzy pants with a bottle of tea with a few drops of cranberry vodka mixed. Just kept life a little more exciting, you know?
Kat went to weekend parties and didn’t go back to her dorm room until Monday--and then Kitty Kat would have her fun.
But that’s not who I am anymore.
The first year of college was twelve months of euphoria as I tried to figure out my major. Then, sometime in the late spring, I did. I was running late to one of my classes when I spotted one of those cheesy career posters hanging on the walls. On it was a group of three lawyers all wearing thin-framed glasses. The woman in the middle looked just like my mother. Learn the rules. And it was there and then I decided I would be an environmental lawyer.
Turns out, learning the rules and using them to my advantage was so much more fun than flat-out breaking them.
Seven years later, I was an intern at a local law firm. This was the start of my professional career. The beginning of Kateri Stuart. The first time I used my correct first name, but not my full name.
Kateri Stuart wasn’t a wild child. She wasn’t a trouble maker and she rarely drank. Kateri Stuart wore pantsuits. She was respectable. Determined. And a little bit broke at the beginning.
But that’s not who I am anymore.
A couple of years into the job, I met Nathaniel Redwood. We fell in love and got married the following summer. I kept my last name. In early spring, we had our first and only daughter. Her name was Tanis Martha Stuart-Redwood and she was the light of my life. I found no greater joy than watching her grow up while my husband and I grew old side by side.
Then, some brutal December thirty years later, I followed my husband to the chilly afterlife. On my tombstone, they had it engraved. My full name.
That was the only time my full name has ever been used. By that time, I had become so much more than those three words. I changed as my names had. But, it wasn’t even the most important name I’ve been called.
I stared down at my grave from the stars above. I saw my daughter and her husband kneeling before it, whispering blessings as silent tears rolled down their cheeks. They whispered my name.
A name far more important than Star-baby, Katie, Kat, Kitty Kat, Kateria Stuart, or Kateri Tanis Stuart.
No, the most important name I’ve ever been called is… Mom.
Because that’s who I am.
Here Lies Kateri Tanis Stuart