What’s in a name? Quite a lot. When I was growing up during the ‘50s and ‘60s it was unthinkable for an American woman not to take her husband’s last name upon marriage. Families were identified by their last name. Of course divorce was a word that was only whispered, too, but as grounds for divorce were expanded and it became more common the issue of last names became more complicated. I can not only name that tune, but hum a few bars. When my parents divorced my mother returned to her “maiden name” but since I was 18 and an only child, I didn’t much care what she called herself. There was no family in my opinion.
Growing up I wasn’t over fond of my last name. I got teased a lot. “What’s your mother’s name--Deep?” And of course during the ‘60s television show Batman it came to include, “Your dad must be Mr. Freeze.” I heard them all. My best friend’s last name was Beard. The teasing was one of our early bonds. We were the girls with the funny last names. Neither of us was upset to quit our last names when we married. Stephanie Casey. There’d be no problem there. And there weren’t even when six years and three children later we divorced. I was offered a chance to return to the last name of Frieze, but my ex-husband was giving me enough problems about the children and I wanted to make sure that there was no doubt about who their mother was.
Then I married again. “Kianersi”—an Iranian name that Americans inevitably try to make a nice Polish “Kianerski.” In Iran women do not take on their husband’s last names and I probably should have opted to stick with Casey or return to my “maiden” name right then. Another child and another divorce later my mother asked me if I was going, “to go back to using your Casey name.” What sort of message was that going to send to my four-year-old son? That I loved his brothers and sister more than him? No, by then I knew that the only last name I wanted was the one my dad had given me. After 36 years I’d grown up enough to value my connection to my father’s family more than what anyone else thought.
So when I remarried in 1990 I never took on my husband’s last name—Haeck. We talked about names. In turns he offered to legally adopt all of my children or change his name to Frieze. Aside from ending whatever meager child support I received from Mr. Casey, I knew that neither father was going to be happy about having their children adopted by another man. Nope. Not an option. And I knew that my own big family was going to have a hard enough time integrating into Mr. Haeck’s (pronounced “hake” and originally spelled H-o-e-c-h) family. If he changed his name to mine it would not be a good way to start off a life together. Our best man counseled against hyphenating our last name since Frieze-Haeck “sounds like something you’d find in the frozen food section of the grocery store.” No one can properly pronounce either of these German names. Prior to caller ID it made it easy to know when a sales person had called the house.
I supposed technically some court somewhere considers me to be Mrs. Haeck, but when people used to call asking to speak to Mrs. Haeck I’d tell them that my mother-in-law didn’t live with us, but I could supply her phone number. I was in my righteous period, letting people know that I wasn’t chattel belonging to my husband. I got that. I’d never understood why on contracts women were referred to as “a married woman,” but men were not “married men.”
When I began working in schools I tried to be Ms. Frieze. Mrs. Frieze was my grandmother. It was weird. “Ms.” has never really caught on. I’m traditional enough to prefer that the students not call me by my first name. I’m still formal enough to call my aunts and uncles by “Aunt” and “Uncle.” My younger aunt and uncle have repeatedly said that it was not necessary, that they could be Sandra and Jerry. No they can’t. “Aunt” and “Uncle” are my claim on them. They are not passing acquaintances, they are family, my family.
In my own nuclear family it has been interesting. My Brazilian formerly-married to-someone-else-daughter-in-law has kept not her maiden name, but her mother’s maiden name. I certainly understand that. My other daughter-in-law, who grew up Heckle (think Heckle and Jeckle) opted for “Casey.” I get that, too. All three of Dave’s nieces who married last year chose to take their husbands names as did his new sister-in-law. Even though they are different generations, they are traditionalists. If my youngest son, who is old enough to be Mr. Kianersi now, ever marries it will be interesting to see how his bride handles this question.
I never quite understood why my step-sister, Stephanie Ann, called my step-mother by her first name or why Phyllis let her. Which brings up a minor victory this holiday season. My step-mother, who’d seen me through two divorces, was content to let me be Stephanie Frieze (although she thought it was weird) as long as I was unmarried, but as soon as I married Mr. Haeck I became Mrs. David Haeck, thus losing my tentative grip on identity. Why this woman would let her daughter call her by her Christian name, but could not let me be who I was, was annoying. “You’re his wife. That’s who you are.” Cards, letters and checks eventually began to arrive to “Mrs. Stephanie Haeck,” but the check thing was a nightmare. I politely asked that at least the checks be written to “Stephanie Frieze” since Dave and I didn’t even share a bank, much less a name. I disliked having to stand at the bank cashier’s window and recite my entire life story in order to cash a check. Finally, finally, finally, a crack in the wall of this otherwise dear woman appeared this year when a letter arrived addressed to “Mrs. Stephanie Frieze-Haeck.” Coming from her, I’ll take being a frozen fish.