Contrary to my bonus Cuzzin Bruce’s implied criticism of our robot Roomba’s name, we do not think “Cinderella” is in any way demeaning. Has he forgotten that Cinderella was a princess in disguise? In fact, we thought the name was quite complimentary, giving up-front recognition to the magic our little robot performs day-in and day-out.
Actually, I’m not sure we would have named her at all except that she came with instructions to do so. And, come to think of it, the request didn’t seem especially strange. After all, we name our cars and boats and bikes. I even knew a woman who named her washing machine. Once I thought that the prerequisite to naming non-living beings had something to do with whether or not said objects could move. But we also name plants and laptops and stuffed animals. Go figure.
Once named, of course, it’s not long before the recipients become “personalities.” We begin talking to them and having expectations for their behavior. We treat those we’ve named as sentient beings with the power to perceive, reason and think as in, “No, Cinderella! You just did that corner. Move on!” That she pays no attention is not a deterrent. I think it’s a hangover from the days when animals worked for us. From that not-so-long-ago time when farmers were the lifeblood of our country’s economy and horses and oxen were companions in their every working endeavor.
A passage from one of my favorite books, Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village by Ronald Blythe, comes to mind: “You do not hear them talking; you hear them feeling… The horses were friends and loved like men. The ploughmen talked softly to their teams all day long and you could see the horses listening.” My grandfather would have understood that.
I remember my grandfather’s last horse, Countess — the only one left by the time I was born. Papa had been a dairy farmer. My Uncle Edwin remembered that Papa had about 50 cattle, chiefly milk cows, but also some beef stock. And, Ed said, Papa had 16 horses at the maximum. These included the work horses, and all the riding horses for the transportation needs of a big family. When his last horse, Countess, died in 1944, Willard began his “Family Man” column (in Good Housekeeping) by quoting Papa’s letter:
“It was a relief for her to be gone, (Countess was past 30), but she wanted to live and so I wanted her to. She was the last animate tie to the old ranch, when you boys were on it with me.” Her death reminds him, he says, that he is lonesome and old.
Willard went on to say that the letter made him see a herd of four-legged ghosts — the horses Empress, Fanny and Prince, Blaze and Lassy and many of the cows as well. He remembered that when Papa got sick and had to give up the ranch, he had kept the animals that would not sell and they had died one by one. Countess was the last and only the summer before had become so feeble that she could not pull the harrow across the garden plot so Papa had unhitched her and pulled it himself.
That last bit tugs at my heartstrings each time I run across it. And it underscores the reason that we name not only our pets and our service animals and even our cars and boats. Yes, and our robots. We have a history of partnering with all manner of animate and inanimate beings — sentient and otherwise. We depend upon them, take care of them, grieve when they must go. I’m sure it’s in our DNA. Of course, we named our Roomba “Cinderella,” Cuzzin Bruce! It is perfect for her and I know she thinks so, too. Wait until you meet her… you’ll see!