So That’s What You Call Me

by Maura O’Shea

My mother has changed her name three times now.  What I find the strangest about this is not the last-name-changing, but how her first name keeps changing as well.

When I was studying Chinese, I learned that there are all sorts of different articles for different objects: animate, inanimate, etc.  They have one article in particular that my teacher explained is used exclusively for animals and “vessels” (?!)

There are many funny little odd translations happening like this all the time, but that one, “vessels” stuck with me. Container. I think of my mother when I think of this word. And I think of women I have been before.

Our names—holding places.  The way we call ourselves, what others call us.  What we demand to be called.

When she was growing up, she was Kathy, eldest of 6. Her mother did not want so many children—in fact she did not want any children at all —but, like many Irish Catholic, had always refused to use birth control. When my parents married, my mother took her maiden name as her middle name.  

***

I recently discussed this name changing with a good friend who, after marriage, had decided to go ahead and take her husband’s name.  

In general, I have had no incredibly strong feelings about it, nor think this issue of the last-name changing is as easy to reduce as people make it out to be.  There are practical reasons. They were planning on having kids, and all the annoying bureaucratic stuff about having different last names, etc. If it would make it all the easier, then why not?  

But what’s more interesting is what she went on to explain: that she felt utterly “unattached” to her own last name. Being the result of a sort of “broken home,” as many of us are, the last name she carried was not the last name of her biological father.  Though her “step dad” had always been a father to her, she also identified as much, or more, with her “half-siblings” from her biological father.  As an adult, she had grown much closer to those siblings who did not share her own last name. She saw the opportunity to let go of this last name, which had likely, consciously or unconsciously, represented for her a rupture, a place of confusion; perhaps even the shame or failure of her parents.  Perhaps, even more dramatically, the failure, or death, or end, of a big love. Of a commitment.  And maybe her marriage was the beginning of something.  A commitment she was determined to maintain.

She found herself not only not reticent, but eager for this name change. It marked something— the end of something? The beginning of something?

Perhaps her new identity, not as the child of this broken thing, but something new she was building.  Or had built, shucked of the baggage of her parents, and family, and history, and a sad story.

A new name: a clean slate.

***

My eldest sister took her husband’s name after ten years of marriage. They are not planning on having children. At the time, she was a bilingual English / Spanish teacher at an immersion school in the mission district of San Francisco. She actually thought changing her last name would help the parents of her students find her more approachable, as her husband is Hispanic, thus carries a Hispanic last name. Although a bit misleading, the intentions behind it were perhaps good: she wanted to make herself more accessible.

Still, I think there is something more that she never articulated. It was a symbolic act of cutting the ties to our own fucked-up family. She had grown up. She had started her own life. She had cut the umbilical, the last thread or cord that tied her to our family in all its messiness. She was no longer defined as my father’s daughter. She was forging a new role.

***

My mother had been Kathy, and then Kate.  When she divorced my father, and remarried six months after, she moved back to the East coast to be with this new man.  She changed her last name to his, and started going by Kathy again. I didn’t think much of it. She was spending more time with her siblings and old friends, who were all back East, who has always known her as Kathy.  

Other things changed. She grew her hair long, even though it had always been short. She became very interested in over-the-top Christmas decorating. Her new husband, a big Eagles fan, started bringing her to games. She went from fan to fanatic. They paid thousands of dollars for Super Bowl tickets.  She started drinking again, casually, like she hadn’t been devoutly attending AA for the past fifteen years.  

My stepfather had an explosive temper, but had essentially good intentions, I guess. My mother shared his name, and the name of his three children and his ex-wife, who had not remarried. Maybe she should “reclaim” her “maiden” name? As a symbolic act? But then she wouldn’t have her children’s name anymore. And what about the professional life she had built for herself under this name she had carried for 30 years? So, the ex-wife kept it, and my mother took it, too. They all shared his name.

After my first stepfather had passed away, my mother remarried again. She didn’t wait long this time either.

Then she started going by “Katie”.  After she remarried, she updated her Facebook Profile status one day, and changed not only her last name, but also her first name from Kate to Katie.  

I found this odd, but when I prodded her about it, she denied that there was anything strange in it at all. “That’s my name. That’s what I have always gone by.”

As most conversations with my mother go, her illogic frustrated me– it was like arguing about whether or not it was snowing outside, or whether or not ice is actually frozen water, or something so ridiculous you can never quite get a grasp on what is actually happening. She has a way of systematically and unabashedly denying facts in a way that is, in all honesty, impressive.

What she said next was a glimpse of something that rings in my mind, though. “Because,” she said, “that’s my name… that’s what he calls me.”

And there it was. That’s what he called her, so that’s who she had become.

When I was young, I’d defined myself as her daughter. Kate’s daughter. “Ohhh, you’re Kate’s daughter!” her coworkers would clap and fawn when they would meet for the first time.  And yes, I would nod, beaming proudly, yes, yes, yes, I was Kate’s daughter.

***

My students here often say “family name” instead of last name. It is another translation thing. “What is your family name?” they ask one another, as they practice for their speaking exams.

One of the questions they practice for on these speaking examinations is: “Does your name have any special meaning?”  Very often they explain, yes, that their name means hope, or wealth, or prosperity. So much is revealed there, about what our families want for us, what they hope and pray for us to be.

I have no namesake. After all, my parents were breaking tradition by giving us Pagan names. Grandparents on both sides were livid. You give your child a saint’s name.

I do not have a saint.  

But, my parents were forging their own family, after all. Without much foresight or planning, they plunged into procreation, into their own family, their own making and unmaking—new rules, new territories. New breaks. New symbols. New names singing through the hallways of their very own beginning.

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