Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What's in a name?

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."
-- William Shakespeare

I spent the weekend at what may have been one of the best weddings ever. After 8 years, my son and his fiancee were married in a tremendously moving ceremony developed and officiated over by my sister. The ceremony was followed by a blow-out party that reflected Bart and Katie's personalities from every facet. It was a blast.

Bart has always been one to push the envelope, and to define himself on his own terms. Since the moment of their engagement, he has been telling us that they were going to choose a new name for themselves, a name that would identify them as a new family. That's been hard for me to think about, and it has been hard to explain to people.

Bart was raised by hippies. Or at least, people heavily influenced by hippies- hippie wanna-be's, let's say. And, according to him, these evil hippies had but one goal-to make his life a living hell, starting at birth with his name. Our family has always been one with 3 last names- his, mine and theirs. When Chuck and I were married in the late 70's, I didn't change my name, and when Bart and his brother were born, they got hyphenated last names- mine and their dad's. The reasons for this were many, and on any given day some are more true than others.

My dad was an only child, who had only daughters. Of the five of his children, three of us chose not to change our names when we got married. There was an element of "carrying on the family name" in my choice, but it was small.

A larger part of my choice had to do with following societal rules. I was (still am) a rebel, albeit a lazy rebel, and not changing my name was a very easy way to make a stand against the forces of the patriarchy without, you know, really doing anything.

"To name oneself is the first act of both the poet and the revolutionary. When we take away the right to an individual name, we symbolically take away the right to be an individual. Immigration officials did this to refugees; husbands routinely do it to wives."
-- Erica Jong

But the larger part was that I just couldn't imagine answering to anything else. My name, all of the parts; first, middle, last, is my name. I'm not fond of my first name, but even the times I have attempted to use my middle name instead feel contrived and awkward.

So, I kept my name. Before Bart was born I asked Chuck if he would be interested in hyphenating his name; I would hyphenate mine and we would all three "match". He said "Hell, no." I responded in kind, and for 30+ years we have been explaining our choices to people. Just last year, in fact, I had a conversation with my niece about addressing the envelope for her college graduation.

When the boys were younger, we knew quite a few people whose had done the same thing, and we knew a lot of "hyphenated" children. There was a lot of concern from traditionalists about this. They would ask "What if your boys want to marry a girl with a hyphenated last name? What will they name the children? Will they just keep on adding names?" I always said "That's their choice and their problem- I did what I wanted to do and they can do what they want to do." When our younger son was married a couple of years ago, his wife chose to change her name to his, and when my granddaughter was born this past June, she got it as well. I was dumbfounded that my daughter-in-law would want to change her easy-to-spell last name for one that promised a lifetime of required explanations, but it was their choice, not mine. (They gave my granddaughter that easy-to-spell last name as her first name, setting up a new generation of name complaints!)

But Bart and Katie made a different choice. At first, it was a blow. I didn't understand how they could feel comfortable with a different name. Then there was the process of arriving at a new name- how would they choose? There were various thoughts about how the name would be selected, including a scheme with a website where all the names they were thinking of would be listed. People would come on the site and for a dollar donation, indicate which one they thought should be chosen. The revenue generated would help pay for the wedding.

I was discomfitted. My sisters were bemused, and my mother was upset, saying she felt terrible for Chuck. "Bart is getting rid of his father's name. How must that make him feel?" If Chuck was distressed, he didn't say anything, and chances are, he wasn't bothered much by it. Chuck has a talent for not being stressed over much.
"We don't know when our name came into being or how some distant ancestor acquired it. We don't understand our name at all, we don't know its history and yet we bear it with exalted fidelity, we merge with it, we like it, we are ridiculously proud of it as if we had thought it up ourselves in a moment of brilliant inspiration." -- Milan Kundera

When we arrived on Thursday before the event, they told us they had chosen Adastra, from the Latin "Ad Astra", meaning "to the stars". While I am not sure how it will be easier to handle than what he had before, it's OK. And somehow, by Saturday, when they were introduced to relatives, friends and neighbors gathered to see them become a new family, I was OK with it. It began to seem right to pick a new name for a new family, a name without baggage. After all, we raised Bart to think outside the box, to push the limits and to be himself. What better sentiment with which to begin a new family?

"Beyond the stars--what? Is it the beginning or end you see? For beyond the stars--what?" Anonymous

For the Wikipedia page on Ad Astra, click here


Robbyn said...

That's really interesting. I ran up against the dilemma of choosing a name when I converted to Judaism and got to pick my own Hebrew name. I wanted it to have particular signficance to my own journey, and the name I chose was a double word name. The rabbi told me that in Israel if I were to use that for my given name, it would sound totally like a hippie name. So I'll always be Robbyn (my parents did that spelling disaster to me) but my Hebrew name, though sounding hippie to some, has a beautiful meaning to me.

Willa said...

I've often wondered how people went about choosing religious names. Who uses your Hebrew name? My husband has a confirmation name, but it is never used.

I love the idea of a hippie sounding Hebrew name!