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!