During Thanksgiving dinner, my sister-in-law noted that her daughter now desires to be called, “Kathleen” instead of her nickname, “Kate.” She is named after my mother – who was called not Kathleen, but Kay. My sister-in-law ascribes this desire to something in my niece’s nature that is akin to my own name-changing tendencies. My brother told the story of my high school years to support his wife’s claim that their daughter, at least on this issue, is following in my footsteps.
My brother’s story:
Dad picked up the phone and we could hear him say, “No, no one by that name lives here.” The still unidentified caller had asked for “Meg,” the name I was called in high school, at my high school only, but not by the rest of my family and neighborhood friends. To everyone else in the world, I was “Peg.” Click, my dad hung up.
My first name is Margaret – it lends itself to multiple choices (ABCD, or all of the above). No one ever calls me Margaret – and now that my dad has died, it remains a name of credit card companies and banks. It is impersonal. When he was alive, however, ‘Margaret’ meant something. It meant that I was doomed because I had caused displeasure. So, my choice to rename myself in high school represented my nature – a willingness to consider options, to wonder about other possibilities.
Choosing one’s name is important – and most of us have few chances to do it. But, when you have a name with versatility or options, renaming can be a powerful symbol of expressing a different part of oneself. Or of trying on an aspect of selfhood that has not been explored.
Gorilla Girl has recently been insisting that I use only the name we gave her and not her Vietnamese name. I am not sure where this insistence is coming from, but each day, I ask her who she is and she invariably replies with NOT her Vietnamese name. So, I call her what she wants to be called. It does make me wonder when and if she will choose a different form of address.
Names are powerful reminders of who we are. They can signify gender, culture, ethnicity, race, religion, class, and even region. They are powerful – symbolic. Those who name others wield power – witness the renaming of African slaves (and the reclaiming of those names by rebels like Malcolm X).
My children have the names we gave then as first names, their Vietnamese names as middle names, and my last name (and not my husband’s). I have my “maiden” name. It wasn’t always so. In my first marriage, I was convinced to hyphenate my name, but of course, my ex-husband kept his name. I was the only one in our marriage who had to prove my belonging. When we divorced, I reclaimed my name. However, my name represents only one side of my family. My mother’s name has been erased – except for the genes that I carry. It will be different for my children. They do have my last name, and they frequently comment that daddy has a different name – and is not one of “us.” Peculiar how even at this age, they begin to use names to sort the us and them. However, because their names have been literally given to them by us, without genetic connection, I wonder sometimes if they will decide to reclaim their Vietnamese names. Perhaps, in our desire to claim them as our children, we changed their Vietnamese names to names that held meaning for us.
Now, I wonder if we should have left their Vietnamese names stand. It was in our desire to claim them, to attach to them, to posses them, that we named them. It is powerful to name. In that moment, maybe we needed to know that we could assert our sense of family and belonging upon them — we needed to name them because we had not birthed them. Now, however, I hope that they will choose – they will become who they become, regardless of the names we have given.