I hope you don't mind but today's post is an exercise for me. I wrote this years ago; it was long and bla, bla, bla. Today I cut it down to try to make it flow. The newest Liza is a sophomore in college now; "Aunt" Liza works just fine.
The name bestowed on us at birth acts as a driving force behind the personality we form as we grow, so choosing a label for a child is an act with far reaching ramifications.
My experience generated a particular awareness as to the lasting impact of the naming ritual since the name I have been called since I drew my first breath is not, in fact, my birth name--and it’s a name easily mixed up, leading to an awkwardness with which I view myself--an intermittent questioning with regard to my own persona.
How I came to be given my birth name, a standard appellation which was my mother’s name too, was subject to dispute by my parents. They are both gone now, but in meshing their stories, I figure that my father wanted to name me for my mother, but she disagreed. Born several weeks prematurely, a quick hospital baptism was a necessity. While my mother recovered in her room, dad stated his name preference; the priest splashed water on my forehead and that was that--until my father informed my mother of my name. Never a gracious loser, she one-upped him by stating: “All right, but we are calling her ‘Liza’.” Her victory set up a dichotomy in my sense of self that hit once I entered school and has remained until today.
I was Liza until the day I walked into the playground at St. Paul’s on my first day of kindergarten. That morning, when my dad gripped my nervous hand, propelled me over to the flowing black robes of Sister Anne Mercedes and introduced me using my real name, I though: Huh?
Upon transition to public school two years later, my real name slipped underground, but the name “Lisa” was common; there were always one or two in my class. None of my friends confused my name, but most of my teachers did, mixing Liza with Lisa so that I found myself looking around furtively when that name was called: did she mean me? My report cards identified me as “Lisa,” and the teacher’s grade books identified me as “Lisa,” no matter how many times I corrected their spelling.
There is a disquiet that develops when your name, something that seems as much a part of you as your blue eyes and the curl in your hair, is misunderstood, and unease returned full-force when I entered college. After those early days at St. Paul’s I spend my public school years resigned to name mix-ups, answering to Lisa or Liz, or whatever derivative was proposed. But at college application time, a serious matter requiring given names and social security numbers, I printed my formal name in the appropriate spaces, oblivious that it would force that first name up from its underground repository. That fall, it emerged with a vengeance; I entered my dorm as a freshman to discover that I was one of six students on the floor with the same first name.
My first act of college life was to X out the name written on my dormitory door and print Liza in bold block letters, but formal records were not so easily edited. The name Liza worked with friends and peers, but in anonymous classrooms, the birth name often stuck. When I held my ground and repeated Liza, as always, Lisa appeared. There I was, thirteen years beyond that first asphalt playground still twisting my head to determine whether the teacher was referring to me, or someone else. On any given day, I could be my real name, or Lisa, Liz or Leeza. Who did that make me, after all?
I thought my salvation arrived along with marriage. I planned on using the Liza I am known by, and my husband’s last name, eliminating my real first name from future documentation. All good--until I realized that changing my last name would remove the single part of my identity that had assured me a consistent correctness in the world. I compromised by deleting my given first name and using my maiden name as my middle name, but it took me four years after saying “I do” to formally adjust things—when the Social Security Commission notified my employer of a name discrepancy attached to my social security number--the threat to my retirement benefits propelled me to legally make the change.
It seemed to work. These days, the first name rarely surfaces--the Liza, Lisa thing remains about the same and though a vowel at the end of our last name seems to confound people--it only gets mispronounced occasionally.
Nonetheless, I laugh now that history has repeated itself. The day my brother’s daughter was born he called to share the news and we asked her name. His response was, “Elizabeth…Lizzie.” We took him at face value and called his beautiful little girl Lizzie upon meeting her, not understanding that when he referred to her in that excited phone call, he meant a pet name he's used for me. Her name isn’t Lizzie, or Liz or Lisa--her name is Liza.
Nothing will ever diminish my pride in the honor presented to me when she was born, but truth be told, since her arrival, my name has morphed yet again. Now, when I am around her, I’m called “Big Liza,” “Old Liza” or “Liza Senior.” When I take rueful exception, they refer to her as “Liza Carens” and my head automatically swivels--old habits die hard, if you will.
So lately I’ve been wondering. If I run back to the Social Security Commission, do you think they would change me back to Mary?