Prompt: New name. Let’s meet again, for the first time. If you could introduce yourself to strangers by another name for just one day, what would it be and why? [Prompt by Becca Wilcott, for #reverb10]
As a child, and as a teenager, I never liked my name.
My given name was Mary Elizabeth, but from the beginning, my parents decided to call me Mary Beth. That was fine until I started school.
I soon figured out that every class roster had me listed as “Mary.” So, the first day of school, every year, I was the kid who always had to pipe up to correct the teacher. “I’m called Mary BETH.” Furthermore, my 100% WASP last name was frequently mispronounced, as people added an extra letter to conform to a name they had heard before. “No ‘D’ in the middle,” I mimicked my parents’ tag line. From the beginning, was I “The Demanding One?”
Over time, I came to loathe the name “Mary.” Not for others, just for myself. When I was in the third or fourth grade, I asked my mom if I could PLEASE change my name — or at least be called something else. That left me to play with “Elizabeth.” I could be Betty, Betsy, Beth, or the ultra-glamorous “Liz.” Somehow, the transition never got off the ground. The prospect of re-educating everyone in my elementary-school world was just too overwhelming, I guess.
Perhaps it was as I entered junior high and high school that I accepted my name as a done deal. I began performing, and rather liked seeing my name in programs and newspapers. My mother kept a file of every scrap of paper that showed I had been acknowledged in print, by people outside our immediate family. My dad, characteristically, gave a mixed message: “Good for you! You know, when I was growing up, They Said the only times you should have your name in the paper is when you are born, when you get married, and when you die. Other than that, keep your name out of the paper!” Hahahaha. What was I supposed to do with that? Did I make career choices and limit my goals and achievements so that I would follow what I thought was advice from him?
I got married. Even though I had the beginnings of a career and a smidgen of name-recognition with my maiden name, I decided to take his name. For women to have that option in the 1970’s, and to exercise it, was still pretty radical feminist. I was married to him for almost twenty-five years, and have been divorced for eight. I have kept his name. It’s how everyone knows me, and knows what I have done. It’s the name my children have. The name and I are connected, even though the man and I are no longer.
As I age and become increasingly comfortable in my own skin, so to speak, I feel more comfortable with my identity, and with the notion that it’s okay to have one. A large percentage of the people I see around town only know me by my Twitter handle — “divamover” — and at many social events, that is how I introduce myself. Start with what is known, then move toward the unknown. My name, and my twitter handle, are associated with a brand, my brand, just me. They are also associated with a reputation, a body of work, and a way of being in the world. Who I BE is the starting point for my identity. What I DO is an outgrowth of that being.
From time to time, I revisit the idea of returning to my maiden name. At the moment, there’s no pressing need to do so, no statement to make, nothing that it would accomplish. I let it be, for now.
As for introducing myself as someone else (per the prompt): sometimes I introduce myself as Juana La Loca. Perhaps that’s my acknowledgment, and a warning to others, that I am indeed more exotic, interesting, and even dangerous — than my “plain Jane” (or Mary) name suggests. I value my fantasies and my imagination, but I’m always me in them. I’ve invested a lot in so-called “reality,” and in being exactly who I am. The name is just a way to “map” your experience of me to a searchable entry in the database of your memory, and a reference point in shared memory. MaryBeth will work just fine.