You name it

The last time I was in between jobs, I spent a lot of time doing genealogical research.  I was lucky enough to have a head start with the genealogy on my mom’s side of the family; to my relief and delight, a cousin of some level and remove had been working on that for years. So I focused on piecing together my dad’s side.  That endeavor was the research equivalent of playing Whack-A-Mole.

Challenge # 1:  My paternal grandfather hails from Norway and as an adult he took on several different names.  Challenge #2:  I had absolutely no grip on pre-20th century Norwegian naming conventions, particularly for women, so it was incredibly frustrating trying to follow the matrilineal branches of my dad’s side of the family.  Then I got a full-time job, and I threw all the research into a binder where it continues to sit.

At least once a day, though, I am reminded of the power of naming.  I go by my middle name, which has resulted in some funny conversations over the years. Truly, I cannot count the number of times that a woman I’m meeting for the first time will say, after I’ve introduced myself, “My MIDDLE name is Joy!” My response is always some variant of, “Mine is too!” Once, after having this exchange with a woman at a party, she looked really confused and said, “Sooo, your name’s Joy Joy??” Um. No.

As those of you who go by your middle names know, the by-product of this alternative lifestyle is that filling out forms can be a tense moment, especially if you are plagued with the obedience gene.

Digression Alert!

Some of you who know me may be thinking, “YOU have an obedience gene??? How come I’VE never encountered it?!!” For all my contrariness — and I do have THAT in spades — I have a deep streak of obedienceness as well. If nowhere else, this is well-documented in a book my mother wrote on forgiveness. In the introduction of her book, my mom told an oft-repeated story of an obedience-fueled boneheaded thing I did as a child, prefacing it with the now-famous line “Joy was particularly obedient as a child.” Funny thing, the memory. All these years, I have remembered the line as “Joy was unusually obedient as a child.” But after fact-checking it in the actual book, well, to paraphrase Inspector Renault from the movie “Casablanca,” I’m shocked, shocked to find that I remembered it wrong. True confession: when my mom’s book was published, I wasn’t nearly as embarrassed by seeing in print the story of my boneheadedness as I was by seeing in print a reference to my obedienceness. Even though the book was about forgiveness — HELLO! — it took me a ridiculously long time to forgive my mom for outing my obedient orientation. No worries now, Mom. It’s all good.

End of digression.

Anyway, one of the complications of moving through life using your middle name is the dilemma of how to fill out forms that ask for your first and last name. Or maybe the problem is that I have never developed a standard approach to filling out such forms, so every time I fill out a form it’s like having a little adventure. Should I go for the adrenaline rush of pretending that my middle name is my first name? Is this a government form or a legally binding document? Will I get in TROUBLE for saying that my first name is really my middle name? Plus, each time I’m somewhere that has my name on file, I have to remember whether I’ve registered by my first or my middle name. Often, the authority figure behind the counter who can’t find my records looks at me like I’m either 1) crazy or b) trying to hide something.

I’ve always been intrigued by the phenomenon of women changing their last names when they get married. I have friends who have done it and friends who haven’t, and I have yet to detect a discernible pattern. Some of my friends have done it to seek the relief of a last name that only has, say, four letters instead of 10 or 15. But some of my friends have kept their long last names. Some of my friends have done it because they believed that their children would be confused if the parents have different last names, and if the mom has a different last name from the kid. I tend to think if THAT’S the biggest thing your kid is confused about, you are WAY ahead of the game! I’m sure there are all kinds of reasons for taking someone else’s last name, and they probably range from the practical to the personal to the philosophical to the political.

What I do know is that getting your original last name back involves a court and a judge and a fee. It’s curious to me that, social conventions being what they are, a woman can take someone else’s name with a stunning (to me) degree of ease, but there are all sorts of hoops you have to jump through (and monies to be paid) to get your original name back. Maybe that’s as it should be. I don’t know.

To a woman, the friends of mine who have taken the time and spent the money to regain their original last names have reported feeling a cocktail of sensations that include relief, sadness, glee, freedom, and whatever else those feelings are that have to do with coming home again. Given the complexity of feelings that we are capable of with regard to our names, my hunch is that there are some women who feel that same cocktail of sensations when they take on their partner’s last name. Whatever the case, it seems to me that the power of names, and of naming, cannot possibly be underestimated.

Back in 1992 I wrote a poem for PW on the occasion of her getting back her original last name after her divorce. I was reminded of it again this week when one of her friends from junior high (and my newest unmet friend) posted a status on Facebook celebrating the recovery of her original last name.

Your Name Again

for PLW

The old folk tale says

when a child is born

her first breath carries her name.

How many times in the course of her life

will she give up her name

or lose it

or have it written over

for convenience,

for tradition,

for the covering up of a mistake?

No matter.

Somewhere, her first breath is still circling:

pitched forward by trade winds,

pressing the feathers of the great blue heron,

spun by a spring cyclone.

Somewhere, her first breath is waiting

to come home.



In the wind sifting your hair,

in some fluttering papers,

in a gale of new snow.

Here.  Here it is.

Breathe it in, then out.

See it written for the first time

all over again.

Your name.  Yours.  Again.

© Joy Howard, 1992

9 responses to “You name it

  1. Richard Howard

    My first grandchild, Emily Joy Howard, reminded me how vital naming is. At age three she sat beside me as I drove the car, and I casually called her “sugar lump.” In a few seconds I glanced over at her and saw a little tear starting down her face. She said, “My name is Emily”
    I’m glad you tried so hard to piece your paternal tree together, because the task will always remain largely a mystery. But thanks for your heroic efforts, Audrey Joy!
    I love your poem to PW. Yours is the heart and mind of a gifted poet!

  2. barbara howard

    Isn’t it great that we think you are MAGNIFICENT! We’re not alone, we know, but anyway live with it. We named you JOY and you are. So,if any bureaucrat gives you any trouble, let me know. I’ll take care of them. (Said in a diplomatic, non-threatening way, but I have ways.) I love Pam’s poems. I love Pam, and Laura and Sarah and Grace and you. I do like Howard better than Peavy, and I think you probably do, too. Joy Howard is a great name for a poet. Joy Peavy would leave something to be desired, like another last name.

  3. barbara howard

    We’ll you please delete my duplicate comment. I don’t know how to do this stuff. But I do know how to name my daughter.

  4. Having no middle name, but having a first name most people assume is two, I realized after taking my first spouse’s name just what a bad idea it had been. Apparently, I’d never really wanted a middle name. With a Haitian divorce, the only alternative to false accusations for divorce in CT in 1971, you didn’t have to pay extra to have your old name reinstated. It’s there in French in the divorce decree, a document that itself may or may not be valid. It didn’t, however, bar me from getting married again years later, this time firmly clinging to my name. I offered to share my name with my husband, but he politely declined. I wonder how my nieces will feel years from now that they’ve taken their spouses’ names. Or maybe they won’t feel anything about it one way or another. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe it just doesn’t matter how we’re called. But it sure felt good to get it back, and it sure feels good to have it still.

  5. Joy, I enjoy reading your posts. Your writing is just so good!!

    My birth name is Penelope. When I was a child, I was called Penny. Penelope was a name that was too old for a kid, I guess. But, I ofen wonder why we are given one name and called by another. When I decided after many years that I like the name I was given, I decided to reclaim it. Now I think it is beautiful and if it’s good enough for Penelope Cruz and Penelope Ann Miller, it’s good enough for me!!

  6. And then there’s the decision of how to name one’s Second Life avatar. For me the choice was clear:

    Katzenelenbogen Koolhoven.


  7. beautiful post. stunning poem.
    now . . . how’s that search for the agent going?
    hmmm? nagging, inquiring minds want to know.

  8. It was legally easy to change the last name, but certainly not emotionally! Mrs. Parker was my mother-in-law, not me. I had to pay to get my own name back and have clutched it ever since. Except when married and wanting to yell at the plumber.

    Thanks, as always!

  9. never thought of going by middle name .

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