Sixty-seven years ago yesterday, 17 March, I was adopted by Dorothy and Harold Eltrich. The name I had been given at birth – given by the adoption agency, that is – was supplanted by a new name. I was only seven months old, so I didn’t know the difference; or so we like to think. Relf Pace became Gary Michael Eltrich. Sixty-five years later, my name was changed again, this time by my own doing. Gary Michael became Michael Patrick.
Has it made a difference in my life, all this changing of names? I think it’s the other way around: the differences in my life have been signified by the name changes, rather than being instigated by them.
I never thought to ask my birth mother, Ruth Cosgrove Pace, whether she’d thought of baby names while pregnant with me. She wouldn’t have known the baby’s gender, so perhaps she thought of both boys’ and girls’ names. I might have been a James, a Robert or a John if she’d raised me herself, rather than relinquishing me for adoption. Those were the three most popular boys’ names in 1947. Michael was number seven, while Gary was number twelve. Patrick was very far down the list: number fifty-three. Walter and Harold were more popular than Patrick that year.
My brother Robert, who goes by Bob, carries the names of his maternal uncle, Robert, and his birth father, Sidney. It’s interesting that Ruth put Sidney in the middle. It would’ve strengthened her story (married in secret, under assumed names) had she named her first son Sidney Pace, Jr.
It doesn’t matter now, I suppose. Bob must be fine as Bob, because he seems to have made no effort to use his middle name, except to fill in the space between his given name and his family name. Perhaps he liked the nickname Bob better than Sid. That was long before Sid Vicious, but I digress.
Nicknames are incredibly popular in our society. It’s nothing new. The word nickname comes from the Middle English term an ekename, literally meaning “an also name.” Maybe Geoffrey Chaucer was Geoff to his buddies – but only after they’d gotten to know each other. Nowadays, people you meet (and not just used car salesmen) will immediately start calling you by a nickname. I don’t know if it happens to women as well, but it seems a kind of false intimacy; a Potemkin bonhomie.
I rarely correct people, unless I find the speaker particularly annoying, and I always appreciate it when someone asks me whether I prefer Mike or Michael. Michael, and thank you for asking.
Names do define us. They carry meaning and sometimes, status. Chauncey and Bertha are rarely heard now, in part because of the reaction you had just now when you read the two names. Names conjure up images and those images affect our self-image. Jackson, Aiden and Liam (the top 2014 boys’ names) have different connotations than Homer or Lester or Milton, and they carry those connotations regardless of whether the bestowers of the names know it or not.
There are cultures that don’t name their children immediately at birth; sometimes because of a high infant mortality rate, and sometimes because the society wants to see what this new person is like before giving her or him the burden of a name. It also happens in a number of societies that a child is given an entirely new name upon entering woman- or manhood, perhaps after an initiation ceremony or a vision quest.
We moderns, though, are stuck with our names; unless we go to court and have our name or names changed. And we do go to court. The Legal Notices section of your local newspaper will have name change notifications listed almost every day. We each want to control our life, and our image – both public image and self-image.
In my case, I had come to loathe the name Gary, as it was associated in my mind with all the negative aspects and experiences of growing up with Dorothy and Harold. That’s why, not long after I got out of the Army, I began introducing myself as Michael. I was still stuck with Gary, though, dragging it/him around with me for years, on my driver’s license, on my passport, on mail that arrived at my house. It was a relief to finally bury him/the name and be, legally and officially, who I have felt myself to be for so many years.
Of course, it hasn’t really changed who I am. I’m the same person, which is to say, the person whom I’ve become over the years. Having my passport read “Michael Patrick Eltrich” is simply an affirmation of the changes I’ve made and the person I’ve become – am still becoming, in fact.
Although I am, thankfully, still becoming, I don’t see another name change in store for me. I think three names in a lifetime are enough.
Still, I sometimes wish I’d gotten rid of “Eltrich” at the same time I got rid of “Gary”. Perhaps taken my birth father’s family name. Become Michael Patrick Jennings.
Maybe in a couple of years …