My father's reaction to my name change brought my first musings on just who determines a person's identity. Is it the parent, the child, the tribe, the state? And who, among those, owns that identity? What is it exactly? A name, a sense of self, a face? For me at that time, my name was part of my personal identity; it seemed obvious that I could determine my name as I would my identity.
I am now a parent as well as a daughter. I know well the happy long hours parents-to-be spend reading name books and choosing a baby's name. We seek a name that may express our first impressions of our child's personality. Maybe we want a name that sounds well with the family name. Maybe we want a name that will somehow in a syllable or two express all the blessings we hope may be bestowed upon the child.
I recall that, long ago, a couple of television actors named their son Free, hoping thereby to bless him with freedom. I once met a man whose mother named him Ugly. Honest. She told him it was to ward off evil from the jealous fates because he was so beautiful, but he did not believe her and changed his name to Robert. I always thought Sophia was a nice name, for it means wisdom, and I would want that for a child.
I have met other parents over the years who have been furious when their child changed the first name (and with much less reason to do so than my friend Ugly). "She has no right," fumed one father whose daughter changed her name from Martha to Erica. "I gave her that name and she has to keep it. It was my aunt's name. " She did not not keep it and he got over it, though he seems to refrain from calling her by any name at all now. His anger showed a sort of hurt that all of that effort to select the right name for the baby had not particularly pleased the baby.
Yet, our searchings for just the right name are only ever about the baby's first name, not the surname. The surname seems to be automatic, given without thought. Perhaps my father's rage was really at the unsuspected surprise; he was a suspicious man who hated to be caught off-guard. Yet, surnames have changed enormously over time. New World countries are much more relaxed than others about surnames, having had to struggle to fit all of their immigrants' names into one language. Surnames in America are particularly vulnerable to meaninglessness, with large numbers of them having been created at the whim of overworked immigration officers on Ellis Island. Two of my close friends were descended from immigrants with Slavic names that had been jumbled beyond recognition or sense by such an officer incapable of dealing with the Cyrillic alphabet, (and heaven help them in their genealogical research today!) My father's surname was not one of those so jumbled but I thought at the time that, since all surnames were not written in stone, why should mine be?
As I look back now, years after his death, and having had many conversations with his brother (who, by the way, did not much mind my name change) I have only a glimpse of an understanding. They were very proud of their family, their tribe. Ironically, the family pride came from their mother about her Virginia people, whose name they did not carry, but they were proud nevertheless. We did not come from a noble or illustrious family. Had we done so, my father's fury might have made more sense to me, but we are descended mostly from simple farmers and a good salting of Quakers. It seemed that my father felt that, in bestowing that name upon his children and including them in his tribe, he was making some kind of grand gift and that I, in dropping it, was spurning that gift and by extension the whole tribe.
Were he to know that I now have traced his family line back to Jamestown, would he be pleased and think that my genealogical research could reconcile me with his idea of the tribe? Or would he be enraged and feel that I, still Anne Morddel, have no right to have anything to do with the tribe? Or would he feel nothing at all and give that cold, low chuckle he had, like a diamondback's warning rattle?
©2009 Anne Morddel