(by any other name. . . )
Years ago, dining with a friend, I dropped my credit card on the table to cover my share of the bill. Glancing at the name it bore, she recoiled and hissed: “Who ARE you?”
Names have been on my mind since reading a flurry of tweets and opinion pieces about women who take their husbands’ names after marriage in this day and age. Strong opinions abound. There are suggestions of letting down the sisterhood. Questions of identity (and the politics of identity) arise.
My thoughts tumbled like a Pachinko ball, catching on pegs, bouncing from name to name, careening past nicknames, given names, and a chosen name, the fixed place where my identity rests, at last, in defiance of legalities. Jackpot!
I blame the parents. Eli, who had a middle initial but nothing behind it; Gloria, who hated that and her middle name, Phyllis, passionately.
They adhered to Ashkenazic conventions when naming their children, choosing either names or initials signifying recently dead relations. Mom wanted to name me Leah, in honour of the aunt she’d never met. The original, a doctor, was murdered by Nazis. Lined up against the hospital wall and shot, was how our family described it. Poppy, hearing Mom’s plan, rebelled. He said it would hurt too much, hearing his favourite sister’s name in constant use.
Then, the oft-repeated story goes, she decided to call me Andrea (pronounced AHNdreeuh) René. The A for my father’s father, Alex, the R for my maternal grandmother, Rebecca.
In Mom’s telling, her mother, Elsie, rushed into the hospital shortly after my arrival — while Mom lay flat on her back, high as a kite, because that’s how births were handled in 1959 — screeching, “You can’t name your child after a sunken ship! It’s bad luck.”
The SS Andrea Doria, an Italian vessel, had gone down off the coast of Nantucket in 1956, when it collided with the MS Stockholm. Though most on board were saved, it was deemed the worst maritime disaster in US waters since 1915, and generated lots of headlines.
Mommie Dearest chose two other names representing the letters A and R. I won’t say what they are, in case identity thieves try to buy a heroin plantation in my name. I will reveal that my birth surname begins with S, and yes, my little brother did once ask Mom why she didn’t cut to the chase, giving me the middle name Sally, to spell ASS. Little did we know that I’d settle in the UK, where ARS is exactly that, give or take a vowel.
My first name was not in common usage in those days, and the parents compounded my problems by choosing a damned peculiar spelling. Our surname’s vowel arrangement proved equally vexing for the general public. Every teacher, every school chum, every school chum’s parent, on down the line, mispronounced both my names, all the time. You get tired of correcting them after a while, and answer to any reasonable approximation.
It gets worse. At home I was Lysa. Which is Lisa, inflated with artistic pretensions and adapted from my first name’s spelling. This, too, was mispronounced by those flummoxed by the presence of a Y. Who can blame them? Then it was shortened by friends who called me “Lease”. I hated it. I am not for rent, I said.
There were other nicknames. My father, all too briefly, called me D’Artagnan. Mom called me Sarah Heartburn in recognition of my drama queen tendencies. One elementary school teacher who had me for math lessons (it was America, it was math) called me Little Green Onion, because he wilfully misheard my maternal grandparents’ surname as “shallot”. My sixth grade teacher — he of the tie-dyed curtains — called me Suzy Kumquat and no, I don’t remember why. (If any of you reading this who know me in real life try these food-related monikers on for size, you’re dead to me.)
A childhood friend and I signed letters Ziggy (me) and Jean Genie for years. Later I was Anti, because Brian and his partner adopted a dog and I was its aunt. Being in every way the antithesis of maternal and family-oriented, I christened myself in the spirit of Bette Davis in one of her vehement-with-a-cigarette roles.
A friend’s child called me Leebeegeebee. I loved that, but alas, he grew out of it. The redoubtable Duchess Goldblatt, of international Twitter renown, calls me Lee Lee. My now adult godson (and his siblings) has called me Louie since he was in diapers, and mysteriously found it easier to say than Lee.
Every now and then a beau, after a tutorial on correct pronunciation, says, “That’s a beautiful name” and calls me by my given. Disliking it, unmoved by romance, I will not answer. It’s said that a person’s name is the sweetest sound they can hear. I beg to differ.
I shouldn’t be obdurate. I’ve often observed (and done it myself) that women involved with guys using shortened names (Mike, Bob, Rich) employ the full magilla publicly to plant their flag and signal intimacy.
Off I trotted to university where I convinced everyone to call me Lee. It comprised and compressed the first syllable of Lysa. Required the least amount of effort. The fewest letters. It’s pronounceable, spell-able, un-fuck-up-able. Genderless. Odourless. Perfect.
Nearly. Believe it or not, Dad’s nickname throughout university (where he met Mom) and well into the marriage, was — you guessed it, Lee. I’d sort of forgotten that, because by 1977 my folks were barely speaking. Why a man called Eli needs a nickname is anyone’s guess. (Before they were married Mom also called him Mr Fire — cringe along with me — because their “meet cute” was that he would light her cigarettes in the college cafe before he knew her properly. Dad didn’t smoke; maybe it was his patented suave move with all the girls.)
Being lovely and proponents of self-determination, my parents accepted my name change, adopting it instantly. Only the first year was rough, when Dad and I both answered if someone called, “Lee”.
That moment, that choice, changed everything. I’d found myself in Lee. I’d named me and claimed me. If naming things is how we make sense of the universe, with that decision I began making sense of myself. Avrah KaDabra, I create as I speak.
Then I went further. About to publish something in an anthology, I adopted a new surname: my brother’s middle name. It’s also his family name, now, since he changed it legally. We joked that we’d want people to know we were related after we got famous (the hubris!), and knew the family name was no use for marquees, book spines, and other advertising. We wanted something that would roll off Johnny Carson’s tongue.
And so it is that whenever I tell people my name, I give them the name I selected — unless they’re a government agency, hospital or a bank. Even at The Scotsman they published Lee Randall (gave her an email address, business cards, the works) and paid another legal entity.
Having circled this house enough times to dig a moat, I can now explain that when I married my Scottish ex-husband I deliberately took his name, though many of my friends were aghast. I reasoned it this way: I wasn’t using my family name for anything that truly mattered to me; I wanted the authorities to accept that ours was a genuine marriage and not an immigration scam; I had no intention of being Mrs, and went with Ms even with this new surname; and finally, I never much used his name, though I still bear it on every legal document. When I divorced, I flirted with the idea of changing my name by deed poll, to coincide with my heartfelt identity, but frankly cannot be arsed to do the paperwork twice in a lifetime, and doubly so, since it would affect both names.
In this piece from The New Yorker, Adam Alter writes: “Beyond their meaning, words also differ according to how easy they are to pronounce. People generally prefer not to think more than necessary, and they tend to prefer objects, people, products, and words that are simple to pronounce and understand.” I wonder who I’d be now if I’d had different names then? Would I have been more popular, and grown up impregnated with self-confidence? Thus fortified, would I have achieved more?
In choosing my name I didn’t entirely reject my parents. It was they who gave my brother the middle name Randall. In keeping my ex’s name I do not cling to him, merely to convenience. It is generic, easy to say and spell when that’s necessary.
Where I live now is deep inside the name I created out of scraps of the family fabric, the name I’ve publicised and published. As I told my friend all those years ago in that restaurant, “I am who I say I am.” Lee.