Once in a while, my daughters have asked me why I didn’t keep my maiden name and instead chose to go by the name of their father.
Their question initially surprised me.
I grew up in France, where my generation benefited from the long battles and victories of women who paved the road for ungrateful younger ones. In the 80s, AIDS was more on people’s minds than abortion, reproduction rights, and maiden names. Most people I knew didn’t marry, even though they had the same partner for years and sometimes children together.
I’m neither non-feminist nor excessively romantic but when my then boyfriend and I decided to get married, I thought that it would be really cool. Surprising myself I practiced a new signature and also to say my new name out loud.
His last name sounded exotic but unfamiliar.
Mine carried its distinct Normandy origins while his came from the eastern part of France.
Who am I? I wondered when I tried to get used to this new name.
I was taking for granted the feminists’ fight. I owed them to keep my last name.
Until my wedding day I had rarely used the term “maiden name.”
After my wedding I decided to use my maiden name and my husband’s last name.
In reality, my colleagues and anyone who had known me before my marriage kept refereeing to me by my maiden name.
Then, we moved to California.
Since our immigration paperwork was done through my husband’s professional activities, for facility reasons, I gave up my maiden name.
That’s how I became Evelyne Holingue.
That’s also how my love/hate relationship with my new last name began.
Immediately, I noticed that most Americans had a hard time to understand my last name. I figured it was my entire fault, something due to my accent.
Then, I realized that they struggled to pronounce Holingue. I couldn’t blame them either. The silent H and strange –gue sound make it difficult for an English speaker.
I started to miss my maiden name. Short, with no H and no weird sounding –gue, my maiden name would have made Americans happy.
But because of our children I had the feeling that it would be complicated if I switched back to my maiden name.
Years passed until my husband and I applied for our naturalization.
This decision stirred a mix of feelings.
On one side, with three American-born children, jobs, a desire to vote, and even to be on jury duty, I wanted to be an American citizen.
On the other side, France isn’t a country that people flee and my parents’ reaction when I announced my decision had been lukewarm.
It was one thing to owe eternal gratitude to the Americans who liberated their native Normandy and another to see their daughter become one of them.
So the day of my naturalization examination was loaded with conflicting thoughts.
The waiting room at the immigration office was packed with dozens of nervous looking people. Every language spoken on earth was represented within these walls, which captured hair spray, aftershave, and anxiety smells.
When my turn finally came, I had also turned into a ball of anxiety. After the interview and examination that went well, the immigration employee asked me if I wanted to keep my name.
Still under stress, the question unsettled me. I had memorized the immigration booklet and didn’t remember anything about names.
I was speechless. My silence was understood as a yes.
The employee closed my file, stamped my papers, gave me the date of the oath ceremony, and congratulated me.
I had missed my chance. I could have chosen an easy American name that nobody would have trouble with. I could have chosen one I could pronounce.
Or simply get my maiden name back.
More years passed. I started to write and signed my work Evelyne Holingue.
I learned to spell out spontaneoulsy my weird sounding last name when I noticed that people appreciated my help. And so, I almost forgot that I had once had a maiden name.
Until last summer when I flew to France to be with my dying father and my family.
There, in this small Normandy village, where everyone had loved my dad, it was easy to be liked as well. People I had never met said I looked like him, walked like him, smiled like him.
My cousins came from all over Normandy and beyond. With them I was a kid again, my knees scratched, my cheeks flushed, and my hair disheveled after hours of running and playing outside. They had no memory of Evelyne Holingue.
At the funeral, I didn’t know half of the people. I grew up a few miles away, but in small towns distance matters. Among this crowd of strangers I couldn’t have distinguished one of my elementary school teachers.
“I came for your dad and mom,” he said. “But also for your sister and for you.”
Of course he addressed me by the only name he knew. My dad’s sudden death had upset me and my beloved teacher’s kindness touched me, but beyond his legendary attention to people his words transported me to the classroom where he taught the last two years of elementary school. In this church, surrounded by my extended family, my parents’ countless relatives, friends, and neighbors, I was the girl I had been before I got married.
Who is Evelyne Holingue?
Then my husband stood up and read a text I wrote to my dad. His French was flawless and unaccented of course. But his shirt, his pants, and jacket, not as close fitting as the French clothes, carried his unmistakable new brand.
The man I married with his unpronounceable French last name in the States couldn’t pass for a French man anymore in his homeland.
My love for him was a perfect replica of my early feelings when I practiced his last name out loud to make it mine.
I am Evelyne Holingue.
That summer I was my father’s daughter.
That summer I was my husband’s wife.
That summer I was a girl who grew up with a name that my teacher still remembered and a woman who chose to wear the name of her children’s father.
After my father’s death, in a sudden sentimental and proprietary way, I was tempted to use my maiden name again. My grandparents died a long time ago, I have no brother, so my father’s name died with him.
In the end I let my mother be the sole bearer.
Fearing that equality for all remains a dream, my daughters, the Millennial Generation, are more feminists than I have been. The victories that I assumed would never be discussed anymore are once more the topics of heated debates. Including in France.
So when my daughters ask me why I didn’t keep my maiden name, I tell them that it is more accidental than deliberate. They know me well enough to understand that whatever my last name is doesn’t change who I am neither my trust in their generation to build a more equal world.
Yet they swear that, married or not, they will keep their maiden names.
I don’t see why they wouldn’t.
Unlike me, my daughters have managed to pronounce this darned French name with a perfect American accent. No one ever asks them with a nice apologetic smile: “What’s that?”
And of course, they are their father’s daughters, too.