The first time I married I was twenty-one. I married a French-Canadian man I had known eight days, and I became Mme. Lessard. The second time I married I was fifty-two. I married a man I had known four years, and I remained Elizabeth McCulloch.
The first marriage lasted fifteen months, until I moved from Montreal back to Ann Arbor with our 3-month-old son. I delayed getting a divorce to protect myself from another impulsive marriage. But when I finished college and applied for law school I wanted my own name. So I filed for divorce and a name change.
By that time I was a full-force feminist. I wasn’t going to give up my husband’s name and take back my father’s. Instead, I took a name from my late mother’s side. I remembered her telling me that her grandmother McCulloch was a suffragist. With all those syllables, Elizabeth McCulloch sounds strong and determined, a name not to be ignored. So I changed my name, and Elizabeth McCulloch I have been ever since.
In the courtroom it only takes a moment to change your name. In reality, it takes years. At first you don’t recognize it. A law professor calls the roll. There is a silence, and then you say, “Oh, that’s me.” You sign your name and absent-mindedly use the old one, the way you write the wrong year on a check in January.
It was a few years after the divorce that I learned I had chosen the wrong grandmother. Chambliss was the suffragist. McCulloch was the daughter of the Confederacy who hid in a cave and ate rats during the siege of Vicksburg. No slouch, certainly, but I would not knowingly have named myself for a Confederate hero.
By the time I discovered my mistake, however, the name was mine. It had blended into the new woman I was becoming. I still struggled with self-doubt, and was still a chameleon in love, coloring myself to match each man. But at home I was the only decider, and at work I had to assert my client’s cause. I was learning enough about a particular piece of the world - poor people in the justice system - to hold my own with the opinionated and knowledgeable men of my family.
Name changes run in my family. My father rejected his father’s surname and took his mother’s, changing from Jacobs to Eder. My nephew did the same, going from Eder to Garcia. My sister Luli changed from Eder to Gray, my mother’s maiden name.
When we adopted our granddaughter Amanda she was eight. We didn’t think she should or would want to change her name, but on the other hand, we didn’t want her to feel we were unwilling to share names with her. With great delicacy, we told her that the adoption judge could change her name if she wanted him to. She didn’t hesitate. “I want him to name me Jasmine Victoria Barnhill.” We get the straight-face medal for not laughing. We explained that she can take that name when she is eighteen, but in the adoption she could only choose our names. She decided to keep her name.
I began writing fiction years ago, and thought I would use the pseudonym Elizabeth Gladly, a name inspired by Penelope Lively and Elizabeth Jolley. That way I could protect my privacy from the hordes of fans who would want to follow my every move, and I could write honestly without jeopardizing my professional standing. But when I retired, I didn’t have to think about professional standing anymore, and I’ve long since given up fantasies of hordes of fans.
My husband Joe married Elizabeth McCulloch. I don’t recall discussing it; I don’t think it ever occurred to him that I would change my name. We get junk mail addressed to Joseph McCulloch or Elizabeth Jackson. But people who know us know our names.
We tempt the fates if we say never, but I believe I’ll never change my name again. It is part of me the way food and drink, the air we breathe and the life we live become part of us. I am Elizabeth McCulloch.
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