Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Apologia for a Surname

I never liked my maiden name. So when I got married I enthusiastically took my husband’s name. He was a Dutchman and his name was van Eijk, which, in Dutch, means ‘of oak’. By the time I met him, he had anglicized it to Van Eyk.

I loved that name. The oak is my favourite of all trees and I felt proud to wear it as part of my name.

Twenty-three years later we had an amicable divorce, but I still, with his blessing, kept the name because I loved it and because it was so much a part of me by then.

Then I remarried.

For a while, I considered changing my name altogether, to something of my own choosing, just like other women sometimes do. After all, why walk around with a name just because it was the name of a father or a husband? But when I thought and felt more deeply into that idea, it dawned on me that all our surnames – in this culture anyway – are the property of men. So if I switched to a different surname I would simply be taking on the name of yet another man. Not my father, this time, or my husband, but somebody else’s father or husband. And the other alternative – calling myself by some daft, New Agey sort of name like Rainbow Dolphin or something – just wasn’t my style. So in the end I gave up trying to figure out a more suitable name.

It seemed a bit unfair to my new husband to keep walking around with the name of his predecessor, yet I didn’t want to lose the name I loved. So the way I resolved it was to tack the new surname on to the end of my existing one. And for this past twenty-two years I have worn both names together. It was a bit of a mouthful at first, but it started to seemed fine to me, after a while. Two marriages, two names – there was a whole lot of life experience all bound up in that. And since I had an extra given name that I disliked, after a while I dropped that off and made Van Eyk my official middle name. That felt good. Together with my given name – which I have always liked – my full name came to express, for me, the complexity of all I am and all I have been. And by now I have published four books and countless articles, essays, stories and poems under that name. So it is really too late to try and change it now anyway. It is a fixture.

But lately, people have started taking notice. Almost daily, this past few weeks, I have been reminded that nowadays I find myself carrying a surname with associations that make me cringe. And that has become really, really embarrassing. People are sniggering. Friends are poking me in the ribs and saying “Better change your name, gal!!”

Oh if only my second husband had been called Obama instead!

16 comments:

Ronni Bennett said...

What a lovely explanation of your journey with your names. Thank god you rejected Dolphin Rainbow, or have I got that backwards...

I only just recently realized the connection of your last name with the American presidential candidate. Can't think why I hadn't noticed before. But in my head, you've been Marian VanEykMcCain - the last, all one word.

Stick with it. You've had it since long before anyone knew who John is.

Elderwoman said...

... and let's hope I'll have it long after they have all forgotten who John is! Thanks, Ronni.

Kate said...

I never made the connection, either, Marian. It even took a second before picked up on it at the end of your post. (duh!)

Loved the post, though. I'm curious about how to pronounce the 'Van Eyk' part: van IKE?

The whole thing has me thinking about my name: the first one if made up, the last is my own. Never had a middle one. hmmm...? :)

Kate said...

You're so far away from the other McCain (or I must be a bit slow) that I had never made the connection.

Wear your name with continued pride; it seems extremely unlikely that anyone will confuse the two or you.

I'm curious about how to pronounce the Van Eyk part, though; is it Van IKE?

Now you have me thinking of my own name again. The first one is made up, the last is my own, never had a middle one. Perhaps I should consider making a change to something with a little more heft. (I'm certainly heftier than I used to be, and now I have all this elder wisdom...)

Thanks for a(nother) delightful post.

Elderwoman said...

Thank you for the reassurance, Kate! Yes, it's 'pronounced 'Van Ike' - in English, anyway. (Somewhat different in Dutch, where it is more like 'Fon Ache' only more subtle than that).

MaryContrary said...

I also never made that connection and I wonder at people who do. It would be like thinking that a modern day John Smith had to be a descendent of the John Smith of Jamestown or that Condalezza Rice had to be related to Ann Rice (Interview with a Vampire).

During my divorce I was so unhappy with both the men in my life whose names I hyphenated when I married, I took my mother's maiden name. Yes it was my grandfather's but I didn't remember him. Both my mother and grandmother had used it and it seemed fitting since they were the ones who consistently encouraged and supported me. I find the story of how you came by yours very interesting.

joared said...

I've never noticed the final name in your name. Enjoyed your explanation of how your name came to be. If you want a name that long, for whatever the symbolism to you, then by all means keep it.

If I reject you because of that name (and I most certainly do not,)does that mean I need to automatically embrace anyone with a name of someone I favor? Hm-m-m

PEACE said...

I understand the dilemma. I was a Kennedy for 27 years, divorced and kept the name until I remarried. I really was in much turmoil because I had four kids...all Kennedy's and I really liked the name. But, I felt it was a slam in my new husbands face if I didn't take his name. I thought about taking my maiden name back which was Linn, but remembered how confusing that was when everyone thought it was my middle name "We need your last name" "that is my last name." So I went with my new husbands name and dropped the Kennedy for Talley. This week, I find out people at work now call me Talley-ho! Not sure if that is a good thing or not!

Anne said...

If one bearer of the surname McCain is dragging it through the mud, then surely other bearers of the surname can pull it back out of the mud! If anyone comments, then just roll your eyes and say, Ah yes, you are referring to our one black sheep!

It was funny for me to read your post, I did the same thing (keep my married name after the divorce) for the same reasons. Couldn't bring myself to do the Rainbow Dolphin thing either!

Elderwoman said...

Thanks for all these great comments, everyone. I am already feeling less embarrassed about the name, as a result!

Ngaio said...

Hello from Aotearoa (NZ) - I always find it interesting how names can define us - after 2 marriges I took my maiden name,(Meehan) back and have never felt more comfortable - it is who I was, and am again ...

Anonymous said...

Interesting, Marian. It is too bad that we ever got into the habit of changing names, just because we married. It makes it so hard to keep track of friends from previous periods in our lives. It makes so much more sense for female children to take their mother's last name and male children to take their father's, in my view.
As for me, I was young and didn't know that I had a choice when I married, so took my husband's last name. For various reasons, when we divorced, I formed a new last name by using the first three letters of his last name and the last three letters of my maiden name. When, after 11 years apart, we re-married, I kept my contrived name. I had long since become comfortable in it and didn't want to even consider another change!
Cop Car

Cowtown Pattie said...

Well, because my real life identity is known only to a few, I can't describe in detail, but suffice to say my newest married name makes the combo of my first and last name sound like a typical southern belle's full first name.

People are always waiting to hear my last name, and I usually beat them to the question, saying yes, that's my full name.

I've long given up trying to be stoic about it, and just roll with the punches.

Rather like having the name "Scarlett" and living in the deep south.

Jen said...

Truely, there is no need to apologize for your surname. Even though you do not agree w/ the politics of John McCain, appreciate that he is a brave man dedicated to the service of his country.

With that said, It is understandable to identity crisis brought on by having to contemplate taking on another's name. I am not married, but have been living w/ the same man for 10 years, give or take a few months. We have two children together. I believed then and now that my name should figure into the equation somehow. My son's first name is Murphy, which is my last name. I love that my name is the stronger of the two names. It is the name that is remembered the most. Obviously, the assumption is that I am married & carry my husband's last name. I am constantly called by his name. I take it in stride because it takes too long to explain our family dymanic. If I ever marry, I doubt very much that I will change my name.

Take Care,

Jen Murphy
Lilburn, GA.

Ineke Koot said...

I have always been curious about the why of the 'Van Eyk' part in your name. I am glad you explained it.
Now I am married in the van Eijk family, but I have chosen to wear my own bornname/maidenname and nothing else. I even did it with my first husband and he accused me of not loving him because of it. Luckily Frans is not so shortminded and he lets me and loves me. However it is confusing for some people. Especially American people.
I am Dutch and my name is 'Koot' and pronounced as 'Coat'
Your explaination how to pronounce van Eijk is hilarious to me!

Wenda said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Have often thought of changing my own names, but haven't taken my actions as far as my thoughts. Maybe I'll choose two or three particularly feminine given names from my family tree to avoid the issue of taking a name handed down by another man. Hmmm.