On My Nees

Men take their names for granted, and why shouldn’t they? They’re given a name at birth, and 99+% of them keep it until death. I have only known two men who changed the surname they were born with. The first was one whose grandfather had sired only female offspring. Realizing that his own family name was about to peter out (there’s an interestingly appropriate phrase…), this man asked one of his grandsons (who had a male offspring) to take the legal steps to assume that family name. The other name-changing man did what seemed to be quite a modern – and unique – take on marital name assumption: he and his wife combined their two surnames into a whole new spelling, the marriage creating a new identity for both.

The idea that a woman should “take her husband’s name” undoubtedly goes back to the fact that women have generally been considered the property of men: don’t let them own property (the first state granted women the right to hold property in their own name, with their husbands’ permission, in 1839), don’t let them vote (true in this country until 1920), and be sure they are labeled so that others may know which man makes their decisions for them (still true in too many cases!).

In 1967, in the style of countless brides before me, I marched down the matrimonial aisle, said I did, and signed my new name on the license. I was now Young Woman Jones, nee Wizard. Simple, no hassle identity change – or perhaps theft. It was accomplished by a minister, a minister who would later be thrown out of his church for his anti-Vietnam War views, not for legalizing a bad marriage.

Divorce followed, but even though I was single again, I remained Young Woman Jones, nee Wizard. Admittedly, Jones was easier to spell than Wizard had been.

I married again, this time quite happy to dump the Jones surname and take on the name of my beloved second husband: Young Woman Smith, nee Wizard. The marriage and the name stuck.

About five years ago, I became interested in tracing my ancestors. I realized how many things I had never asked my parents about their roots and set about trying to find the answers. It has been an interesting search, and it has led to an interesting result. As I uncovered more and more of the history of all the “greats” and “great-greats,” a sense of identity emerged. I am now Older Woman Smith, nee Wizard, but the name just isn’t who I really am.

My mother’s family had been early American colonists, Quakers who were banished to Canada in the late 1700s because they refused to bear arms during the Revolution; my paternal grandparents were Austro-Hungarian immigrants. I tried on various combinations of my parents’ surnames with my given name, first favoring the simpler-to-spell maternal name, but somehow that didn’t feel balanced. I divided a piece of paper with a vertical line, wrote my father’s surname at the top of the left-side column and my mother’s surname on the right side. Beneath the name on the left, I listed my traits, talents, abilities etc. reasonably attributable to my father; on the right, those things about me that seemed to have been inherited /learned from my mother. To my surprise, the lists were quite equally weighted. There was my answer: I would use my given name with both of my parents surnames, however clumsy and hard to spell it might be.

I tried it on, and it fit comfortably. That is who I am.  I still have not gone through all the legal steps to make the change official, but I am using my new “old” name. It feels really good to be off my nees.

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