Memories & Musings – On Names

Mosaic Artist and Photographer Nina Tisara, founder of Living Legends of Alexandria, writes about her name and the connection with her grandmother.

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This is me at age 5, with Grandma Sarah. It’s a “shoebox” photo; I don’t know who took it.

Alexandria, VA – People think the name Tisara sounds Italian. Or Greek. “Where are you from?” they ask me. Actually, Tisara is a name I made up when I was divorced and determined to be my own person. As a teenager, I was smitten with the notion of taking the name of the man I would love. And I did that. Twice. After the second divorce, I decided no more. Even if I married again, I would not change my name.

The final divorce decree included the legal name change and I was issued a new birth certificate. Which was very useful when I recently applied for a REAL ID driving license. I am no longer Neida Beverly Tinkelman, as on my original birth certificate. My legal name is Nina Tisara. My original first name, Neida, was a contraction of the names of my two great grandmothers, Necha and Ida. My new family name honors my Grandma Sarah. More about Sarah later.

I changed my name in 1978. I was likely influenced at least in part by the TV series Roots, which aired in 1977. Roots was a dramatization of author Alex Hayley’s family line, from ancestor Kunta Kinte’s enslavement to his descendants’ liberation.

For me, changing my name was an outward symbol of my own liberation. I quit my job for a Capitol Hill association around that time and opened my photography studio.

I considered changing my last name to Sarah after Grandmother Sarah but I thought Nina Sarah would be hard to say, so I added the first two initials of my maiden name, Tinkelman, making it Tisara. And I thought I had created a one-of-kind name that no one else had ever or would ever have. Years later, when I Googled my name, I found a listing for Tisara Villas in Sri Lanka. Their website says they “offer an unhurried holiday in an atmosphere of peace and tranquility….” It is owned by a grandson of one of Sri Lanka’s best-loved authors and folk heroes. There is also a reference to Tisara Sandeshya, written circa 1350 AD, which cites the fictitious messenger Tisara (Tisara = swan.) Who knew? Maybe I lived in Sri Lanka in a previous life.

Back to Grandma Sarah. I remember some very special things about my Grandma Sarah. Most important to me while growing up was that she loved me unconditionally. Later, I admired her strength. I learned that when my grandfather disappeared for months at a time (there are theories about why and where he went), she supported the family by working as the superintendent of an apartment building. In exchange for rent, I think.

Grandma Sarah scrubbed the hallway floors and carried out cans of ash from the incinerator. I remember her making some of my clothing without patterns, just looking at me, cutting the cloth, and sewing it into a dress on a treadle-powered Singer®. It was usually something I needed to grow into.

I remember her making dolls out of kitchen towels. I remember her making challah bread and teaching me to braid the three fat strands of dough into a loaf. She always made a baby loaf for me. I like to think I inherited her skill with kneading dough.

Plants thrived in Grandma Sarah’s home. A twig she placed in a flowerpot to prop up a plant grew its own leaves. I like to think I inherited her green thumb.

Grandma Sarah traveled to America alone, in steerage, when she was 15 years old. She told me she cried when she saw the Statue of Liberty and was afraid the inspectors would turn her back from Ellis Island, thinking she had trachoma, a contagious disease that can cause blindness. She never again saw the family she left behind. I like to think I inherited her strength.

My name’s for you, Grandma Sarah.

Mosaic Artist/Photographer Nina Tisara is the founder of Living Legends of Alexandria.

ICYMI: Memories and Musings: On Converging Paths