What’s in a Name?

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.

photo-131

Comments

  1. I enjoyed this immensely. I too practiced my new name for my first marriage. I changed it back to my maiden name when it finished but happily changed it again when I remarried. This time though I didn’t change my signature as the only real difference was the starting letter was a W instead of an M and with my writing you couldn’t tell. Sadly like you our surname also dies with my mother.

    • I read your post and found some common points betwen our two pieces, which is why I enjoy blogging so much. Names are part of us and we only think of them during very specific times. Thank you for stopping by.

  2. People have struggled with the way to pronounce our family name forever. Even my father’s siblings don’t agree. My mother pronounces it differently than I do. I’ve lost interest in the battle. Americans want names (perhaps everything) to be easy. I enjoyed reading this. You wrapped up so many things in a nice package. I’m still wondering if I would pronounce your name correctly. Of course, I know you first by your avatar. If you change that, I’m in trouble 🙂

    • Other people have told me about the challenging pronounciating of their names. As for your name, I would probably say it in a very French way. I had planned to make a recording of my name linked to the post but I’m so technically challenged that I didn’t…
      Do not worry though for the pronounciation. I’m used to the variety and it’s a big surprise when I go back to France and hear people say it the ‘right’ way.

      • Many people guess that our name is French. Actually, it is Syrian. That is it was changed from a more Syrian sounding name at Elis Island. Some leave the ‘o’ silent. Others, me included leave the ‘I’ silent. Other pronounce the ‘tion’ as they would in action (just wrong). I don’t know how it should be. Your story was interesting. I am a generation removed from those questions so it was nice to read.

  3. Joan Schoettler says:

    I love this post!!! I don’t want to respond too often…probably have just twice, but I don’t want to look like I’m stalking you! I love how you pour your heart out on the paper, sharing your story with such ease. Someone, a hundred years from now, will be able to reread this blog and know what a fine, fine person you are. Keep up the writing…

    Joan

    Joan Schoettler Children’s Author joanschoettler.com joan@joanschoettler.com

  4. What a good story of a name!

  5. I kept my signature even as I took my husband’s last name. Even that has raised eyebrows here. I still live in a chauvinistic country 🙂 Lovely post.
    Jennifer

    • Thank you for sharing your experience on the importance of names. Actually what I have done over the years is keeping the initial of my maiden name in my signature. So I didn’t fully give up on it!

  6. Sisyphus47 says:

    Notre nom, et notre identité, sont étrangement mêlés; de plus nous autres, expatriés, sommes beaucoup plus conscients de la fluidité d’une identité… 🙂

    • Merci, Sisyphus. Vous avez raison sur la fluidité de nos identités lorsque nous sommes loin de notre terre natale. Les repères classiques disparaissent, avec les plus et les moins que tous les exilés connaissent.

  7. Love your post!

  8. My oldest daughter kept her maiden name, her business was in her maiden name and every other aspect of her life. The other two daughters moved over to their new married name. I suppose it reflex on how the life is lived and what is needed to ‘be’ in that life.

    ✿♥ღ Linda
    http://coloradofarmlife.wordpress.com
    http://handcraftedbyus.wordpress.com

  9. I really enjoyed your post and thanks for leaving a comment on my post on this subject. I was glad to take my husband’s name when we married as my maiden name was difficult and I always ended up spelling it out for people. You told your story so well that I found myself caught up in it, thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you for visiting me too. Sometimes, I agree that another name can be the chance to get rid of one we either don’t like or is hard to pronounce. See you on your blog.

  10. Love this!

  11. Wow. Hello non native English speaker! 😉 I feel that we have the same ‘problem’ in terms of how other people pronounce and spell our names. Although, you actually changed your name, while I only changed my nick name.
    This post is very interesting – I really like it.

    • Thank you for your visit and your comment. Yes, we do have this ‘problem’ in common, which in a way adds a little bit of zest to our lives, right? Best to you and your blog.

  12. I took my husband’s surname when I got married. I was happy to finally get a last name people could spell and pronounce–but nowadays I wonder if it’s too common!

  13. I love the way you write, very refreshing, very intimate. Maybe it’s French, more so than English. My husband and I also changed our surname after becoming citizens (though in Canada) to a easier version, so that it pronounces more like English and so that people can decipher it without giving it too much thought.

    • Thank you so much for visiting me, for sharing your experience, and for your kind words about my writing style. Picking a more americanized name would often make things easier. On the other side, the original version of my husband’s name is a reminder of our journey from France to the US.
      Nothing and nobody is ever perfect, right?

  14. Great post, and a complex question. We got married in Ireland, and the change was made for me by the Irish administration, nobody asked me about it! I could hp have retain my maiden name on my French passport through, but it would have been like having a double identity, one for Ireland, one for France. We have a very French surname, but very easy to pronounce in English, whereas my south west maiden name is a struggle, even for the French.

    • Merci, pomdepin. Interesting that the Irish administration didn’t ask you if you wanted or not to keep your maiden name (don’t you dislike this word ‘maiden’?) And yes, like you, having two identities would have been strange. The only thing is that my ‘nom de jeune fille’ (another funny way to call that!) is much easier to pronounce and even to write. Now is kind of late to reverse the situation. Thanks for stopping by. See you on your blog.

  15. cardamone5 says:

    Visiting from Holistic Wayfarer’s site, where you liked a post on race featuring me. Thanks.

    I love this post. It is so heart-felt and funny. It reminds me of recent conversations with my children, who ask curiously what my old name was, including my old middle name, because when I got married, I substituted my maiden name for my middle name. I explained that it was a choice I gladly made, eagerly shedding my maiden name (except that it now became my middle name) as if that parting meant my past was also gone, no longer requiring me to deal with it. I think you capture well the emotion and doubt that goes along with, in this country at least, a seemingly automatic move. My husband teased at the time, urging me to keep my name. I grew indignant at his words, thinking they reflected an indifference to our union when the gesture was more protective of my identity. I hope you don’t mind, but I may borrow the idea and do a post of my own on my own experience with my name change. I’ll wait a day or so to hear from you in case you object (cardamonefive@gmail.com.)

    Also, I’m a follower now (that is in no way intended as a bribe to let me borrow your idea.)

    Best regards,
    Elizabeth

    Best regards,
    Elizabeth

    • Thanks, Elizabeth for stopping by. I liked the answers you provided on the delicate issue of race. I suppose names can be a delicate topic too. Go ahead and write about your name experience. I don’t mind at all and I will be looking forward to reading your post. Thank you for liking my prose enough to follow my blog.

      • cardamone5 says:

        Ok, so I just posted my version of a post on names. I accidentally used the same title as you, which I will change. Sorry about that!

  16. These chills you gave me, E. What a rich post about such a rich struggle. I love the description about how you were a kid again, knees scraped…and how you settled into your multiple (and all-in-one) identity, your father’s girl, husband’s wife…

    Thank you for the beautiful chapter out of your amazing journey all wrapped in the post.
    (Ps, chked out this post at Elizabeth’s behest.)

    Diana

    • Thank you, Diana for stopping by and for your kind words on my post. I also like the fact that bloggers meet through other bloggers and how our posts, sometimes, hit the right place.

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