When she was in high school, my sister dated Ted Knight. You know by his name he was tall, dark and handsome. The only name that might have been cooler: Tom Cruise. But is it?
Some of us just got lucky in the name department. I know of a woman whose maiden name is Wintermute. How romantic is that? But some of us weren’t that fortunate. And many of us who surrendered our maiden names were happy to do so. (Maiden name? I’m just now hearing that phrase from a 21st-century perspective and feeling cringey.)
Statistics show that the vast majority of women in heterosexual marriages still choose to share their husbands’ last names. This worked out well for a lot of us. When we traded the old name for the new, we got one that was easier to spell, simpler to pronounce, more lyrical with our first names, or one for which we were happy to jettison our original last names for emotional or psychological reasons.
For me? Check, check, check, and whopper-check.
I could have had a very different maiden name, but I’d have wanted to swap it out as soon as possible as well. In her freshman year at Western Illinois University, my mother fell in love with a boy named Elmer Isnogle. Pronounced like eyes-goggle. I have a photo of him. I could have been Laura Isnogle. Would Laura Eyes-Goggle have lived the same life?
I can feel you backing away. Thinking this over. Get back here.
Elmer Isnogle was a beautiful boy with dark hair curling over a low forehead and a sweet smile. I have a love letter he wrote to my mother before my father, who was also 18 at the time, sent him packing. Would that marriage have lasted? Elmer’s and Mom’s?
And would they have named me Laura? What a privilege and responsibility, how exciting, as expectant parents, to get to name someone. You made lists, floated possibilities to your partner, who would immediately reject a name you loved because it reminded him of the boy who stole his tricycle when he was five and then hid it on his screened porch in full view while denying having it—a kindergarten gas-lighter whose legacy lives in the place your partner is still five and still emotionally gob-smacked by this ballsy move.
So, the whole naming thing is kind of intriguing. We had a cat named Kimmie, and when she disappeared, we got another cat and named her Kimmie. A stunning lack of creativity, it seems. Like, “This is my brother Daryl, and my other brother Daryl.”
In naming my sisters and me, my parents, for some reason, wanted to give a collective nod to our Scottish heritage—so they named my oldest sister Bonnie Sharon with no intention of calling her anything but Sharon. They named my next sister Andrea Dee (Dee is inexplicable; let’s remember these are the owners of Kimmie 1 and 2) and me, Laura. Why? So they could call us collectively Bonnie-Annie-Laurie. Which comes from a Scottish love song written by William Douglas in the 1700s to his sweetheart, Annie Laurie. Who was, apparently, quite bonnie.
In fact, Douglas was so smitten with the lovely Annie Laurie, he claimed her “fair fairy feet were like the dew on the daisies lying,” and concluded that because
“She means the world to me, for
bonnie Annie Laurie
I would lay me doon and dee.”
I hope he didn’t dee. No one should dee for love.
I ask you. Is this a reason to pick out three names that will never ever be used collectively? Even if, for the record, Annie Laurie’s brow was like a snowdrift, her neck was like a swan? (Okay, and her face was the fairest the sun ever shone upon.)
I’m not telling you my middle name, but middle names as we know them today were originally Catholic saint names given to children of European upper classes in the hope that those saints would protect their namesakes. By the 1400s, the practice had spread to the lower classes. Then the practice jumped the pond, and by the mid-1800s, upstart rowdy Americans were beginning to give their children middle names. (Before that, it was nearly unheard of. Our first five presidents had no middle names.)
My own maternal grandfather didn’t have a middle name. He had a middle initial. It didn’t stand for anything. His name was Dwight L. Aten. I guess the family was warming up to the idea of middle names slowly. Won’t give you a whole middle name, Dwight, but here, have a letter.
My maternal great-uncles appropriated other people’s middle names. There were, among others, Henry Clay (Aten), Daniel Webster (Aten), Robert Burns (Aten), James Ulysses Grant (Aten), and John Quincy (Aten)– all famous men with the maternal family surname tacked on. (Anyone thinking Kimmie 1 and 2?)
Maybe being named for someone accomplished is inspiring, sets the bar high for a life of substance, but it can also be a burden. I have a friend named for a saint—and while that might be the ultimate request for protection, it also feels like a subliminal expectation at which none of us could succeed.
Because we tend to live up to names, or to be haunted by them. If you felt less than positive about your last name, far better to learn to feel differently about it than to go for the trade-in. Because that makes the trade-in not an upgrade but a Band-Aid.
Here’s how I think of it. In the long line of ancestors that comprise your family tree, you didn’t inherit what your forebearers became; you inherited only the pure essence of goodness with which they were born. You inherited only their positive potential—their intelligence, sensibility, sense of humor. Not the culmination of experiences that shaped who they became. The legacy you actually inherited was spiritual –simply the innate desire to love and be loved. Family trees should feature baby photos going back centuries.
We do have a lot of fun with names, however. I still would like to track down my rescue pup’s sister, Lucy Penrod, who lives in Florida, or her brother, Frodo, who lives in Bowie. Their names crack me up.
I’d take them to the dog park where I recently encountered Mutt Damon, who is indeed a handsome lad. I hope he’s around when I get my next dog.
The one I’m naming Ted Knight.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.