What’s in a Name?

Over the course of my wedding-bearing years, I’ve had friends who fall everywhere on the name change spectrum. I’ve known girls who were so excited about making sure everyone knew they were married getting married that they adopted their future husbands’ last names before the royal blue bridesmaid dresses could even ship from China. I’ve known girls who were militant about keeping their maiden names.  My cousin Cathy and her husband both use both last names, with a hyphen. There are many ways this could go, and as is the case with all life changes, I remained ambivalent about the matter.

I’ve never loved or hated my maiden name. It is innocuous. Its ethnicity is not obvious, it doesn’t rhyme with any part of the digestive or reproductive system, it doesn’t belong to any serial killer (that we know of). At times, I’ve been mistaken for someone of Irish descent (really? REALLY?) and/or the heiress to a soup fortune, but I can think of worse problems. Perhaps if I’d been born with a name like Dickwat or Ashweip, or into the Rockefeller family, I would have felt more strongly one way or the other. But my maiden name was in fact the name I’d had all my life – it was just who I was: Traci Melissa K_____.

I knew Keith wanted me to use his last name, but he never pressured me about it. He asks so little and puts up with so much, I felt it was the least I could do for him. And in many ways, I looked forward to having his last name. I viewed it as a new beginning, a fresh start. It made Keith and me an official family, and it linked me to my new extended family – something I’d never had but always wanted. I liked that idea.

On the other hand, I couldn’t help but veiw shedding my maiden name as shedding my parents, sister and roots. I hated that idea. I didn’t want to be the only one of them with a different last name. It didn’t help that my sister and I are the end of our last name’s line. I also felt, despite my best efforts not to, that taking your husband’s name was a smidge old-fashioned. I’m hardly a feminist, but it just didn’t seem necessary. Furthermore, while I haven’t accomplished anything much, the things I have done – survive journalism school, work at a real live TV network, create this blog – I’ve done with my original name — as me. Was I losing my past if I lost part of my name? Was I still going to be a short neurotic Jewish girl from New Jersey if my last name was suddenly Italian? Did I want to be a short neurotic Jewish girl? Was this really such a big identity crisis or was I, as usual, making a mountain out of a molehill? Who cared if I was Traci  Melissa K_____ or Traci Melissa D______?

Frick on a name-changed stick.

A good solution seemed to be this: I’d legally change my name to include Traci, Melissa, my maiden name, and Keith’s last name. It would appear as a mouthful on paper, but I’d use my maiden name at work and Keith’s in general. In the eyes of the law and in my head, I wasn’t getting rid of anything. I was merely adding something.

I had designated last week’s Summer Friday for the name change task, which involved stops at the Social Security office and DMV. I awoke with a mix of excitement and melancholy (which was due in large part to the fact that my current driver’s license photo is relatively smokin’, and I really didn’t want to fork that up with a new picture). As I rode the subway and made my way through Times Square en route to the Social Security office, the morning felt very momentous. In a few hours, I would have one more name. I would be someone else. Kind of.

My turn at the counter came quickly. I presented the clerk with a certified copy of the marriage license, my tattered blue Social Security card and the form I’d filled out ahead of time.

She looked at the form and then asked, “So you’re adding a middle name, ‘Melissa,’ and then your husband’s last name?”

Um …wha?!

Evidently, as far as the Social Security Administration and U.S. government were concerned, my middle name had never been Melissa — just the initial M.  She handed the card back to me as proof – I’d never noticed it before, but she was right.  I was Traci M (sans period, no less!) K_____.

For a few seconds I was upset by this revelation. It made me sad that Social Security believed my cute little parents had  only chosen a random letter for my middle name and not even bothered to punctuate it. My parents would never do that! They’re nice people!  They care! They love me! Then I was stunned  – my name was a sham! My life was a sham! Who knew what other parts of my identity were nothing more than an initial? Did I even exist, or did I just e?  I’d obsessed for months about changing a name I never actually had.

But then I caught on to the valuable lesson the Social Security deities were obviously trying to impart. I had gone about my business and lived a good (albeit angst-ridden) life believing I was Traci Melissa, regardless of what name the government had on file. Would I have turned out any different if the Social Security card had said “Melissa” instead of just M? Highly unlikely. Would I suddenly transform into a calm, care-free person who shuns chocolate and falls right asleep at night now that “Melissa” was really part of my name? Even more unlikely.  Surely, the same held true for my last name(s). 

Apparently, the answer to the question “What’s in a name?” is, “Not that much.” It doesn’t matter what you go by — it matters who you are. So now, I am a four-named neurotic Jewish girl from New Jersey with parents who DO care enough to have given me a proper middle name and a very patient husband who doesn’t mind being married to a pizza bagel.

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What’s in a Name?