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Monday, May 17, 2010

What's in a name?

An elderly lady once said to me that she missed the fact that nobody called her by her first name anymore. Everyone who could call her by her first name was dead. I did not fill the gap, it not being polite on my part to assume she would want me to call her by her first name. She didn't suggest it either.

I was watching an I Love Lucy episode not long ago that featured Lucy modeling a dress in a fashion show where all the models were wives of movie stars. None of the women were given their own names except, of course, Lucy. The rest were "Mrs. William Holden," "Mrs. Dean Martin," "Mrs. Van Heflin," "Mrs. Richard Carlson," "Mrs. Forrest Tucker," and "Mrs. Gordon McRae." It was a little annoying to have to get online and research who these women really were: Brenda Marshall, Jeanne Martin, Frances E. Neal, Mona Carlson, Marilyn Johnson, and Sheila Stephens. Even when I found them, I couldn't find information on the maiden names of Jeanne Martin or Mona Carlson.

It's the same problem with genealogy. Women get hidden, and it takes major detective work to trace their lines when they are identified in life as only "Mrs. So-and-So." If you can find her marriage record, you can find her name, or sometimes maybe one of her children's death records lists her real name. But if you're looking for a woman before 1840, it gets a lot harder. She becomes nearly invisible.

However, I don't want to pursue the subject of women being hidden by their husband's names. I want to talk about what we think of ourselves, no matter what we're called. I have had quite a few names in my lifetime, and I think my case is true of a lot of people, both men and women.

First, there's my full name. That was the name that was connected with Mom being stern and me being in trouble.

Then there's my nickname. That's the name that most people call me on most occasions in my life so far and is the name I most closely associate with "me."

But I can't forget that there were other nicknames, not so flattering, that my brothers and sister would think up and call me. They were usually something to do with my personality flaws or my appearance, and they certainly were closely identified with who I was as a child and teenager. I am not going to reveal what they were. My siblings probably could tell you more of them than I even remember.

Then there are the nicknames my co-workers and friends called me. They would take my last name and make it into a nickname, or they would further shorten my first name.

When I got married, I changed my last name to my husband's, and then I changed it back again for complicated reasons. Mainly, I think, I didn't like the idea that I was now "someone else." I felt identified with my name and I didn't like changing it. For ten years I had two different names, depending on where I was. At work and for insurance purposes, I kept my maiden name. At home and at church, I used my husband's name. Finally, when our ten-year anniversary rolled around, I changed my name in all my spheres to my husband's name.

One of my brothers has changed his name a couple of times. He created a new legal name for himself and then had us all learn to call him by his new middle name. He was making a lot of changes in his life and the new name signified some of those changes. Some years later he decided to have us all use his first name, so we had to change our habits again. It isn't as usual for a man to change his name in mid-life as it is for a woman, and she changes her last name, not her given names, so my brother's name change was very hard to get used to. It is easier when someone is around you all the time and you use the new name often, to get used to it. When you don't use the person's name except infrequently, it is much harder to change it in your mind.

When we become a parent, we acquire new names, in my case, "Mother" (which is very helpful now that my mother lives with us and I call her "Mom"). Then we acquire a grandparent name, which in my case is "Grammy." Spouses often drop each other's given names for nicknames of endearment--"Honey" or "Dear" or something more syrupy.

When we get online, we have a variety of usernames and contact names and display names, depending on the website.

You can entirely lose the name you grew up hearing. You can lose the name your mother called you when she was mad. You can lose the name on your driver's license through nicknames. When you are old, nicknames are all you might ever hear.

Doesn't matter, I think. Juliet was right: "What's in a name? that which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet" I'm still the same person no matter what my current label is. That's my identity.

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