I changed my name about a dozen years ago. I didn’t change it to anything as spiffy as, say, Mark Twain, or offbeat as Kate Winslet’s husband Mr Rocknroll, but it met the main criteria of being different from that which I’d spent 20 years vaguely dissatisfied with. (If the math doesn’t add up to my age, that’s because I wasn’t always bothered.) I did it because I could, and it was easy. Except for the explaining part.
How do you tell your father you’re discarding the family name, apparently dissing him and the line of fathers which begat ungrateful you? If you’re a girl getting hitched, it’s not an issue even in these days of fewer nées; patriarchy has its silver lining. Boys are expected to display the marque. That’s one reason for the extra enthusiasm with which cigars are handed out, at least in the movies.
“Eeny, meeny, miny, Moe. OK, you’re Moe. Don’t cry, your brother got stuck with Sue.”
I didn’t tell him at first, even going so far as to carefully remove all luggage tags when my parents would meet me at the airport for my annual visit to the homestead. But eventually it seemed prudent to gingerly let the cat out of the bag and hope for the realistic best, i.e., a shrug and a sad smile of acceptance. I honestly still don’t know how he took it; I don’t remember if his body language was mute with shock or I averted my eyes at the crucial moment. Other than a steady stream of perhaps-not-always offhand remarks which suggests it remains a sore spot, we’ve never discussed it in any depth. It helps to have cultivated a reputation for being [pick an adjective] odd/‘creative’/difficult.
It’s hard to gauge the importance of the name that’s been stuck on the birth certificate. On one hand it’s—sorry, papas everywhere—meaningless. On the other, it’s your bloody name, innit. Tends to crop up on a daily basis. Gets called over the loudspeaker, machine-printed in junk mail, chiselled onto your gravestone. In my case, constantly misspelled or at least mispronounced.
If I’d been born Native American and followed traditional conventions, my parents would’ve called me boy-who-cries-a-lot, thanks to colic.* In my teens this might’ve then become hogs-mirror-with-comb, perhaps finally culminating in adulthood with naps-on-couch.
As it was, I went from something howmanyofme.com informs me only 28 other Americans shared, to a meeting hall of closer to 300.
The transition wasn’t too great of a lurch in the small family unit of me and my wife. She’d known me as my now official first name since the 80s, the initials my parents had bestowed having formed a perfectly serviceable moniker that happened to appeal.
I retained my middle name as a kind of keepsake. My new surname came more or less out of a hat, like my father’s, at least from the point of view of a zygote swimming in a universe of possibilities. (I know, a zygote doesn’t do much paddling. It’s more a wallflower waiting to blossom.)
My wife didn’t follow suit. There’s no reason she should have. She chose it; I didn’t. Who could have guessed she’d be landing on what was to be my maiden name.
Not long ago I started visiting my hometown on a regular basis via the local newspaper, which has been giving me space to write about life as an expat. Call it boy-who-crossed-pond. As a byline I chose my old name. It made sense; my parents and their friends would be reading. I wanted them to be able to say “Yeah, he’s ours” should they be pleased with the result, without resorting to tedious explanations. (On the flip side, should they feel the need to cringe, well, tough luck.) Though pen names are common enough, it’s an unnecessary obstacle in a conversation.
I’ve also reverted to my given name on Facebook. Not only is it easier to process for relatives who haven’t been kept apprised of my idiosyncrasies, it’s pleasing to feed data-hungry Zuckerbeasts white lies.
Ironically, as I have a bit of a lisp, my self-chosen name appears to be difficult to convey to anyone needing to take it down. “Fam?” I’m frequently asked over the phone. <Sigh>