By Dana McKenna
I remember when I decided to do it.
I was going to change my name.
I had just filed for divorce. It was liberating, knowing I’d done something proactive for my emotional and psychological well-being. After I gave my (now) ex the ultimatum of ‘me, or everyone else in a skirt’ (guess which he chose?), I hired a lawyer, filed the paperwork, and was on my way (little did I know he would stretch it out over two+ years, quickly making it the Big Bad Awful, but that’s another story).
So, changing my last name. Not back to my maiden name; no, I hadn’t been that person for nearly 20 years. And I didn’t want to wait until after the divorce was final, I wanted to do it now. It was a further step to heal, another step in the direction to reclaim my own life. And it was the right decision.
Now, what name did I want to reflect me? What name did I want to represent “me” to the outside world?
To be, or not to be, Smith or Jones. That was the question.
I wrote down or typed into my cell phone every name I came across that I liked. From looking through books on my coffee table, watching TV and movies; perusing magazines, bookshelves at the library, FaceBook, and bookshelves at Barnes & Noble; mulling names over-heard in conversations standing in line; to (more) perusing of used-books store shelves, place names on maps, family trees, cemeteries (really, headstones are a bounty of monikers!), other people’s bookshelves…you get the idea.
My long list devised, now needed some serious weeding. I would practice introducing myself out loud using the names I’d found.
That lopped off at least 1/3 of the list.
Anything too alliterative was just too much for me and was promptly pulled. Pondering some of the names over a short period of time also thinned the crop.
What remained was a list of a dozen or so names. I pulled out one of my small yellow legal pads and began writing my first and possible new last name.
First, middle, last.
First, middle initial, last.
First initial, middle initial, last.
Monogram (very important, it turns out, so that you don’t inadvertently spell something nasty).
I narrowed the list to 3.
And then couldn’t make up my mind.
Someone suggested I look up the meaning of each name – WHY I hadn’t thought of that before completely escapes me (I am a huge etymological junkie!). And it turned out to be the key to the magic garden gate.
I won’t give you all of Merriam and Webster’s thoughts on the finalists. Suffice it to say when I came upon the definition “to rise above,” I knew I’d found my prize rose.
There were only two people with whom I discussed my name change before I began the actual legal proceedings: my son, and my Dad.
With Zach, I asked him how he’d feel having a different last name than me. He was 9 at the time. Without looking up from the Harry Potter book he was reading, he replied, “Mom, half the kids in my class have parents with different last names.”
With Dad, I was more concerned he’d feel, well, insulted. I didn’t want him to think I was turning my back on his name, or that I didn’t like it. Not at all. I needed him to understand I was doing this FOR ME, and that it actually didn’t have anything to do with my initial last name at all.
His reaction? “That’s very cool.”
All righty! Down to the nitty gritty then!
File all the correct papers with the court. Run the ad in the local newspaper 3 times (supposedly to let your creditors know how to track you down after you’ve changed your name?). Back to the court to give them the affidavit that proves you’ve had the ad run 3 times. Then wait for a court date. The whole process takes anywhere from 6-8 weeks from start to finish.
In the meantime, I decided to have a party.
I asked all my good friends to join me at our church chapel on Valentine’s Day. My court date was for 2 days later where it would actually become LEGAL for me to use it in public. But that Valentine’s Day was really when I began the journey reflecting who I was to become.
It was a short, but meaningful little ceremony. So many friends came – although I think maybe it was as much curiosity about my new name (I actually managed to keep it a secret for 6 weeks!). Afterwards, we all went back to my house for food and drink and laughter. And champagne. You simply can’t have a proper celebration without bubbles.
Good thing we had lots of those bubbles because the real work was about to begin.
Choosing a new name is slightly akin to choosing a major in college: you hope you still like it after the first year because going through the process of changing it is a real pain.
Driver’s license, passport, social security card, credit cards, bank accounts, post office (which really throws them off, let me tell you), library, voter registration, magazine subscriptions…and then trying to explain it to the rest of the world.
“No, it’s not my maiden name”
“No, I didn’t remarry”
After that, people who didn’t know the story just stared – where else would a name possibly come from?
Then I’d explain. Most of the time I was met with happy surprise, “Oh, that’s neat!” or “What a great idea!” or “You go girl!” Other times people looked at me as if I was breaking the law, or had two heads. Sometimes both. I’ll admit, the first time I came up against “Well that’s kind of stupid,” it was very deflating. Here I was doing something I was so excited about, that meant so much to me! Why couldn’t they see it that way? A friend reminded me I was doing it for me and no one else. And she was right. I still come across people who just can’t wrap their heads around MY choice, and that’s ok.
Shortly after I’d changed my name, I met another woman going through her own version of the Big Bad Awful. She asked if I was keeping the married name or going back to my maiden name. When I told her about choosing my own last name, her eyes widened and she whooped – she ACTUALLY made the “whoop” sound – and said “I’m going to do that!”
That’s me: spreading sunshine and dissent amongst the masses, one person at a time.
Dana McKenna is a playwright, essayist, editor, and interviewer. Her essays have appeared on Huffpost.com and her website “I Feel Like I’ve Forgotten Something” (reminddana.com); her interviews, in regional magazines and local newspapers. Two plays and a book are in the works. She lives in the NW Chicago suburbs with her partner, T, and her son, Z, a proud University of Iowa Hawkeye, their two cats and one dog.