Le Merle

The surname Malott has gone through many, many changes since it was first recorded in the late sixteenth century. My oldest forefather that I can discover is a M. Josias Merlet, born in the north-eastern part of France in 1598. His eldest son was Gideon Merlet, precious to me since he is the forefather that connects me to my much-beloved American Lit teacher and ninth cousin twice removed, Annie Nelson. (If you’re interested in how that family tree works, dig through my photos on Facebook; you’ll find it.) Gideon Merlet had six children (Jean Pierre being my ancestor, and Abraham being Annie’s) and at least seventeen grandchildren. Spelling changes in my surname can be found as early as Jeane Pierre and Abraham’s generation, who went by Marlet instead of Merlet. From there, the evolution of the name only continued, changing literally every single generation (Marlet became Marlett on Annie’s side, and became Mellott on mine, then Melott, then camped with Malott with my great-great-great-great grandfather, born one year before American Independence). By the time the twenty-first century came about, there were around 150 variations on Gideon’s last name, ranging from Malat to Melutte to Murlot and just about anything you can imagine in between. In France, the name continued to change in its own vernacular ways, now including names such as Merleaux, Merlaud, and du Merle—though, that last one actually makes the most sense etymologically, regardless of its anachronistic purity, since the surname Merlet actually comes from the French word merle, meaning “blackbird”—so du Merle (literally meaning “of the blackbird”) comes a whole lot closer to what it should be than some of the evolutions we have here in the States (like Mulutt, which you can barely say without gagging a little bit). My family has become so massive, in fact, that there are multiple online projects calling on all Marlatts and Morlets and Malluttes alike to contribute any family information we might have, to help discover exactly the scope of our scattered but determined family.

We’re quite a force, us Melats!

(It’s actually quite fascinating: depending on which of Gideon’s sons a person is descended from, their last name will vary accordingly. For instance, Annie’s side of the family, born from Abraham, takes the last names with the r after the first vowel—such as Marlut or or Merlot—whereas Jean Pierre’s descendants lack that—which is why my last name is Malott, sans-r. Who knew!)

So what does one do with all this? As it turns out, my family’s surname has a lot more to it than the never-exhausted spiel that, yes, the emphasis should be on the second syllable, the second, and not the first. I am named after a blackbird, after all, and not a type of hammer.

I am a Malott. I’m also a McGann, a Cox, and a Clara, and scores of others that I don’t know about, but I don’t bear any of their names. I am a Malott: as much as I am the daughter of a Californian Southern Baptist, born in Oakland, I am the daughter of a French Huguenot, born in Roucy, Champagne, France. I bear his name. I am so much more than my father’s daughter: I am my grandfather’s granddaughter, and so on and so forth. This really only struck me when I went to college, and I wasn’t so much of a Malott anymore: I was just Ellie. Coming home now—the summer after my junior year, where I’ve been “just Ellie” for three years—I’m reminded that I’m not just Ellie. In church this morning a woman whom I’ve known for a few years but haven’t seen in a while asked me to remind her of my name. When I said Ellie, she immediately replied with, “Ah, yes! Ellie Malott.” It was an interesting moment. At home, I’m a Malott girl, I’m Annie’s sister (more often than Katie’s sister), I’m Marc’s daughter—I’m never just Ellie. It’s contextualizing, in a way, but I feel squirmy about the contextualization. “Malott girl” for me sounds like years spent at WCCA or Berean; “Annie’s sister” reminds me of peers older than me that were my friends merely by osmosis; “Marc’s daughter” rings of work days at Bethany, or hours spent in front of the piano. Not all of those things are bad, but they definitely are full of some sort of weight I can’t quite put my finger on yet.

But being Ellie at Biola is, in a lot of ways, just—easier. The difference between Ellie Malott at Biola and Ellie Malott at home is tremendous: the former is a clarification, perhaps between myself and other Ellie’s; the latter is an identification, or a classification, or a link. The former specifies myself as an individual; the latter specifies my family as a whole.

Thomas Merton has an interesting insight on this subject, and he takes it in a direction that I’ve been thinking about throughout this post, though I never overtly state it:

Only when we see ourselves in our true human context, as members of a race which is intended to be one organism and “one body,” will we begin to understand the positive importance not only of the successes but of the failures and accidents in our lives. My successes are not my own. The way to them was prepared by others. The fruit of my labors is not my own: for I am preparing the way for the achievements of another. Nor are my failures my own. They may spring from the failure of another, but they are also compensated for by another’s achievement. Therefore the meaning of my life is not to be looked for merely in the sum total of my own achievements. It is seen only in the complete integration of my achievements and failures with the achievements and failures of my own generation, and society, and time. It is seen, above all, in my integration in the mystery of Christ…. Every other man is a piece of myself, for I am a part and a member of mankind.” (No Man Is an Island, p. xxi-xxii)

“No man is an island,” Merton says, echoing the poem written by John Donne. Maybe not. But even though we all share common ground, maybe that ground is higher for some than it is for others? Are parents, for instance, on higher hills than their children? And when those children go away and make their own hills, what happens when they come home again?

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