Friday, October 2, 2009

What's In a Name?

A short (OK, maybe not so short) follow-up to the previous post on my reunion with my birth-mother. . .

I am now the same age my birth-mother was when we first met (since she was, for all intents and purposes, 20 when I was born). It is hard for me to describe what it has meant for me to have had her in my life these past 20 years. Just knowing where I came from, and that I didn't fall out of the sky (or, as my friend Lime is wont to say, that I wasn't hatched from an alien egg) counts for a lot. But having the kind of 'intrinsic' connection that flows from shared DNA has been a unique delight, all its own. Besides which, I really like her; she's a neat lady, and I'm glad I can know her.


One of the things that is on my mind as I ponder this anniversary is names. We all have one (heck, most of us these days have three of 'em, or more), and, in whatever odd and mysterious way, it identifies us uniquely. Parents give a lot of thought to naming their children, and the vast majority of those children accept the name their parents gave them as somehow intrinsic to their own identity. Having a name - being given a name - seems to signify our personhood (or somesuch hi-falutin' stuff).

In my life, I have had three names. Or maybe I should say, I've had three sets of names. The first was the name I was born with. A first name, a middle name, and a last name. Oddly enough, my first name has been one of the very few constants, that have inhered to my life over the full extent of it; there's a story connected with that, but I don't want to get ahead of myself. My birth-mother says that she gave me that name because it seemed a strong name to her (the 'Names' section in the back of our dictionary makes associations with mountains and rocks; FWIW), but beyond that, it had no particular significance; it wasn't a family name, or anything like that. Just a strong-sounding one, at least to her young ears at the time. My middle-birth-name was the same as her brother's (my uncle's) middle name. And my birth-surname was the same as hers. Which fact would come in very handy when I undertook to search for her.

When I was a child, I came across a baby book that one of my foster mothers kept for me (quite an unusual thing for an adopted child to have). In it, I was identified by my first and middle birth names, which was a little confusing to me, since, at the time I was seeing it, that wasn't my name. The first name was familiar, but I didn't know what to make of the other one. For many years, I thought that it was my birth-surname (it was one of those names that could have been either a first/middle, or a surname).

My adoption wasn't final until sometime after my first birthday, as attested by the date on the adoption order. I think my birth-mother was a little reluctant to once-and-for-all sign the papers relinquishing her rights to me. My adoptive parents may have had me as their foster son for a short time before the adoption was final, but that was when it all became official. Since I was a year old, they reasoned that they should leave me with my original first name, since I was, by that time, well used to being called by it (and all the moreso, if, as I believe, they had already had me in their home for a while, and had called me by that name themselves).

They gave me a new middle name, after a famous Supreme Court Justice (why my parents were so enamored of that particular Supreme Court Justice, I have no idea). I never particularly liked my middle name (and, in the fullness of time, once I learned a little about him, I wasn't terribly happy to be named after that particular Supreme Court Justice, either). Although I did get some amusement from people trying to guess my middle name from knowing the initial (no one ever did). And of course, I got a new surname. A new family name, signifying the new family that I was being brought into.

And the family identity that was signified by that name has come to be precious to me. 'Jones' (of course, that's not really my name, but for our purposes here, pretend that it is, OK?) is associated, in my mind, and in my psyche more broadly, with a whole set of 'family' things - my dad, most especially; his dad, my grandfather; my grandpa's farm, where we went for all the holidays when I was a kid, and which had my grandpa's name prominently displayed on the front of the barn; my brothers and sisters, and my cousins from my dad's two brothers, and the fact that everyone knew we were connected to each other because we all shared the same last name; and so on, etc, etc. Even when I went away to college, I went (almost in spite of myself) to the same school my dad had gone to (and his brother, my uncle), and I was well aware that I was not the first person named 'Jones' to have walked those hallowed halls.

And such was my name, through all of my living memory, and I had no reason, nor desire, to think that it would ever be otherwise. . .

Until I met my birth-mother. When I was first starting to think about searching for her, I spoke with my parents, to try to get a 'read' on where they'd be at if I decided to do such a thing. And, in the course of the conversation, my mom (my 'stepmother', though I've never called her that) produced a torn scrap of paper with three names on it. The first two, I recognized from the baby book. The third, the last name, was completely new to me. She went on to tell me that, when she'd married my dad, she'd come across the papers pertaining to my brother's and my adoptions, and had written down our 'original names', just in case, and then hidden that scrap of paper behind a picture that hung on their wall for years. And, as it turned out, within the first year that she and dad were married, our basement flooded, and all of those records were destroyed. So, for more than 20 years, that scrap of paper, hidden behind that picture, was virtually my only connection to my origins.

Anyway, when I asked my dad how he'd be disposed to my searching for my birth-parents, he was fine with it. "If you think it's something you need to do, then by all means, go ahead." And then he added, "Just don't change your name." And I assured him that I had no intention of doing anything like that.

While I was searching for my birth-mother, I made some use of the fact that my dad had a great-grandmother with the same surname as I had been born with (he and my birth-mother turn out to be something like 8th-cousins); I could credibly (and truthfully, if not quite 'the-whole-truth-fully') say that I was researching the family whose name happened to be theirs. I also spoke with a few of her friends and relations (none of whom, by the way, figured out my true intentions), and they duly recounted their conversations with me, when next they spoke to her. And she was extremely intrigued, when she heard the name of this young man who was asking about her - the first name was the same one she'd given her son, years ago (and 'Desmond' - again, not my real name, but we can pretend - is not the most common name in the English-speaking world). Which was most curious, since she assumed that, whoever her son was, his adoptive parents would have given him a different name. Even so, she had inklings that something significant was afoot.

Once we were well and properly reunited, and I had gone to visit her at her house, and it was well-established that we were going to have a long and happy relationship, I came to lament the 'broken connection' between us, and all the years we'd spent apart, and I wanted to have some tangible expression of our connection to each other. My dad having admonished me not to change my name, planted a seed for a possible resolution to my difficulty. I was pretty sure that the 'name' my dad was referring to was our family name. And, since my first name was the same, no matter what, I thought, I could change my middle name to coincide with my birth-surname, which was also my birth-mother's maiden name. That would 'complete the circle', capturing in my name all of my birth and familial connections (and would also shed me of a middle name that I had never liked). (And besides, I've always thought those 'mother's-maiden-name' middle names sounded classy).

When I checked my hunch with my dad, he agreed that it was the family name he was concerned about, and he didn't attach all that much significance to the middle name he'd assigned me, either (beyond the fact that he had, in point of fact, assigned it to me; but he didn't regard that particular assignation as binding). And so, in 1990, just before my 34th birthday (and just before my birth-mother's first visit to our house), I went to court and legally changed my name, so that now, my birth-family-name is my middle name, to go between the only first name I've ever had, and the name of the family I was raised in, and nurtured, the family whose name I've borne for longer than I can remember.

And it all just seems to fit. My whole life, and all of my circumstances, are accounted for in my name. And it seems very good.


Cocotte said...

That's a cool story, Des. Esp. the part about the scrap of paper behind the picture! Wow! So glad it all became a happy ending for you.

When I married, I got rid of my middle name and legally changed it to my maiden name. I didn't want to lose the name that was on my diplomas or the six years of work experience I had under that name. So, my full name is quite the mouthful of 9 syllables.

for a different kind of girl said...

A very cool story, indeed. When our first son was born, we gave him my maiden name as his first name, his father's/grandfather's/great-grandfather's middle name, and then, of course, our last name. Put them all together and say it with authority and pride, and it sounds like you're introducing the future President of the United States. Our second son has no family connections as far as his name goes, but his middle name is Daniel in part because as I approached delivery, our small group was studying the story of Daniel and the lion's den, and I loved the strength and commitment of the man. Of course, our pastor's name is also Daniel and he thinks I gave my son his particular middle name to honor him!

lime said...

that makes me smile. it's such an unusual thing for a man's name to be changed so it's obviously a very deliberate thing and rich with meaning. thanks for sharing that story. thurgood is it? (hehehe, jk, just was the oddest of supreme ct names that first popped into my head)

i rather agonized over what to do about my middle name when i got married for various reasons.

Desmond Jones said...

Cocotte - I encouraged Molly to do the same - use her maiden name as her middle name (I'm not a big fan of hyphens, tho), just to keep her own family in her name. I guess she's a tad more 'conventional' than I am, tho. . . ;)

faDKoG - Your son's name is Fadkog? That'll make it easy to find him, next time I'm in your state. . .

I have a cousin whose first name is his mother's maiden name; and his mother is my dad's sister, so his first name is my last name. Which always struck me as weird. But then he went ahead and named his son after himself, and his son did likewise, so I guess he didn't think it was so weird, eh?

Lime - No, not Thurgood. . . And not Frankfurter, either. . . And 'Whizzer' was only Justice White's 'football nickname'. . . ;)

Trueself said...

Indeed what is in a name? I like your real first name, nice and normal yet not overly common. It's good.

Totally unlike my uncommon and oft mispronounced first name which drives me absolutely batty. I almost fell over when a childhood friend told me not long ago that she gave one of her daughters my first name as a middle name. The horror! Oh well, at least it's just the middle and she can always change it later.

I have thought that after my parents have died I will legally change my awful first name to the derivative thereof that I often use in real life, and then I will forge ahead with a mission to eradicate as many references to my "real" first name as possible.

BTW, thanks for letting me totally hijack the comments here and make it all about me, 'cause well, it is all about me you know. ;-)

Sailor said...

I like this story a lot, what a neat connection you've formed with your family, in all it's different aspects and phases; and I too love the scrap behind the picture, what a wonderful gift to have been given!

Desmond Jones said...

Truey - Well, I like my given name, too; like I said, it's one of the very few things, aside from my own physical person, which have been constant for my entire life; which probably ain't all that common amongst adoptees. . .

Sailor - Yeah, the scrap of paper is a great twist to the story, ain't it?

And yeah, connections are good; you can't hardly have too many of 'em, eh?