Tuesday, March 25, 2008
What's in a name? Everything!
I've often wondered how popular the Ford Mustang would have been if they had called it the Gelding.
I once looked up Susan in a baby name book. It said that "Susans are little and cute and bake cookies."
I am small by most standards and was always placed front row, center, in grade school class pictures, holding the sign, but I consider myself a tall person traveling incognito. And cute is a cop-out. Either call me beautiful or (gasp) ugly, but cute has no teeth. Pug puppies are cute. And koala bears. Calling a woman cute trivializes her.
I thought maybe my despised middle name would offer a decent fall-back, but again, no. What were my parents thinking? Were they thinking at all?
"Roberta moans a lot. At first you can't believe your luck but then you begin to wonder if she does this with everybody."
They should have stuck with the original plan and named me Stephen. My brother had worked out so well that they were hoping for another boy. My father knew enough about science to understand that the onus rested on him so he must have felt utterly betrayed when all his efforts produced -- me.
I remember my parents having an animated discussion about biology at the dinner table. My aunt's husband had commanded her to give birth to a boy as they already had a girl. If she disobeyed him, he had threatened to take their first child, my cousin Carla, aka "Princess" long before anyone had ever heard of Jewish American Princesses, and my aunt could take “it,” the new baby, and go somewhere else.
My father proclaimed that Uncle Al was an idiot. “The father determines the sex of the child,” he exulted, bursting with this indisputable evidence of male superiority of which Uncle Al was nonetheless ignorant.
The idea that men could actually decide if they wanted a boy or a girl and their wives had to obey them didn’t surprise me at all. My father had been God all my life.
Aunt Doris in an act of unthinkable rebellion gave birth to a second daughter. They named her Billie because she was supposed to be a boy.
My mother, who was apparently the more adaptable of my parents, tantalized herself with the delusion that I could be her in-house Shirley Temple, minus all the expensive singing and dancing lessons as my father didn't believe he owed me anything extra if I was going to be so perverse as to be a girl at all.
Unfortunately for her, I turned out to be the kind of girl who climbed trees and liked to get dirty rather than posing vacuously like Carla in her party dresses and perfect corkscrew curls. Besides, I didn't have any party dresses and I especially and conspicuously did not have patent leather maryjanes. I owned a wardrobe of my brother's outgrown t-shirts and fly-front pants, so what did they expect?
I did everything I could to console them but grow a penis, which was clearly beyond my control.
My mother told me often that in ancient China, people killed girl babies because nobody wanted them. I was given the idea that I was supposed to be grateful to my parents because they had let me live. Not knowing the statute of limitations on this amazing reprieve made me uneasy, but since I had no other frame of reference I assumed it was normal.
It never occurred to me that we were not Chinese.
At six, my friend Mary Ann and I changed our names to Dorothy and Patricia, such beautiful names, far more exotic and fancy than our own. She became Patricia and I told my mother that henceforth I would answer only to Dorothy. She discovered that I was quite serious when she called me home to dinner.
“Susan,” she yelled. “Su-san! Come in now.”
“S-U-S-A-N !” she screamed. “It’s din-ner time.”
“I’m Dorothy,” I screamed back from the top of the magnolia tree which could barely hold my weight.
My mother was mortified because all the neighbors knew that her daughter was named Susan. Since she obsessed about things like that, she couldn't very well call me Dorothy; they’d think she’d gone off her rocker.
She upped the decibel level. “SUSAN ROBERTA CAHN!” she shouted in her overdrive voice.
I stayed in my tree.
This went on for weeks. I would like to say that I got to miss a lot of lousy dinners but my parents were really big on eating. Every night I was dragged inside and plunked down, unrepentant, at table.
Eventually I got tired of this and told them my name was Patricia.
My best friend Lynda lived down the street. She used to be Linda, but her parents let her change it to the fancier spelling with a “y”, which was not lost on me.
Lynda was one day older than I. She had a brother named John, a Cocker Spaniel named Jingles, and a mother who looked like the broomstick witch in The Wizard of Oz and was just as mean.
One day, I rang their bell to call for Lynda and her mother sprang out at me, grabbed my little paw and bit my index finger hard.
“That’s for biting Lynda,” she said. “Now you know what it feels like.”
I was shocked that she would bite a child as I really thought we were safe from that kind of thing. And I never bit Lynda or anyone else. I didn't tell my parents because I was sure they'd think I did and punish me.
I will state here unequivocally that to this day, I have never bitten anyone. Even my brother. But more importantly, my parents are dead and I am free to change my name without offending them.
While I have made an accommodation to Susan, which is not loathsome like Roberta, merely bland and lacking even a smidgen of the exotic, I have decided that I need a new label for the duration of my time on this earthly coil.
During many years spent in the Native American world, I was given a childhood name, Follows a Dream, and an adult name, Crazy Heart. (Crazy does not mean wacko in Native America, but mystical.) The medicine elders who bestowed these names on me are walking the spirit trail and I'm ready for an elder name myself now.
I am accepting suggestions and will consider all names that can be performed in public with the exception of feminized masculine names like Roberta.