When I was pregnant with my first child, I paid careful attention to name selection. I wanted a name that was short, easy to spell and pronounce but also absolutely beautiful. And I wanted a middle name that was just as lovely as the first name, in case my child hated its first name and wanted to rebel when puberty hit. Why all this attention to choosing a baby’s name? Because for some reason, given names just don’t stick in my family.
Take my parents – both of them went through informal but lasting name changes.
My Dad’s full name was Eli John, but he was always called E.J. One of his high school teachers didn’t like nicknames. On the first day of the new school year, when she asked Dad his name, he answered, “E.J.” “E.J.?” she asked. “What kind of a name is that? What is your real name?” “Eli John,” Dad replied. The teacher rolled her eyes, defeated, and declared, “We’ll call you E.J.”
My mom was christened Doris Bridget, and she went by Doris or Dorrie until she landed her first job as a pharmacist. There was already an employee called Doris, so Mom was asked if she would mind going by her middle name to avoid confusion. Mom agreed. One day a tall, dark and handsome man entered the pharmacy on the pretext of wanting to buy a pipe, but it was really because he wanted to meet the new pharmacist. Mom introduced herself as Bridget. Tall, dark and handsome revealed that his name was E.J. “E.J.?” Mom asked. “What kind of a name is that?” Sensing that this young woman was going to play a bigger part in his life than his high school teacher, Dad offered, “You can call me John.”
As they settled into their new names, romance blossomed between Doris (now Bridget) and E.J. (now John), and it wasn’t long before they were married. Mom’s side of the family always called them Doris and John; to Dad’s side, they were Bridget and E.J. When I was growing up, I was puzzled by this. Couldn’t they have settled on just one name each, the one they liked best, and ask their families to comply? But it never seemed to bother them.
When they started a family and had to name their own children, my parents gave all my siblings a first and middle name but used the middle name rather than the first. John Michael was always Michael, Douglas Paul was known as Paul, Susan Elizabeth was Elizabeth and Robert Samuel was Sam, causing no end of confusion for all of them. I was the only exception. I went by both my names.
My full name is Mary Ellen. That wasn’t my mom’s first choice. Before I was born, she told everyone that if she had a baby girl, she would name her Margaret Ellen. After I was born, family and friends immediately shortened it to Peggy Ellen. Mom was appalled. She loved Margaret Ellen, but Peggy Ellen? It just wouldn’t do. So with time and come paperwork, I became Mary Ellen.
That lasted until puberty, when I rebelled. By then, The Waltons had become popular on TV, and John Boy and his sister Mary Ellen were a bit of a joke. I announced that I would be Mary Ellen no more. I would use my first name only and become Mary. Mom, who had so carefully chosen my name, was very supportive of my decision, perhaps because she had personal experience in switching names.
With all these permutations and combinations of names in my family background, I was determined to get it right with my child. The evening my daughter was born, I called my parents to announce the birth of their first granddaughter. Mom and Dad were delighted. The next morning, I called again. Dad was out, but I let Mom know that we had settled on a name, Emma Julia.
Dad called me back soon after, and I had rarely heard him so excited. He kept thanking me for naming the baby after him. My new mother brain couldn’t figure out what he was talking about. Did he not remember that my baby was a girl? Had Mom not told him her name was Emma Julia? Finally, I figured out what he was saying. “E.J.” he shouted into the phone. “You are calling her E.J.!” At that moment, I realized that no matter how hard I tried, I would never win the name game.
Mary Gauvreau has lived in Ottawa since 1988, and recently discovered memoir writing through workshops at GNAG led by Anna Rumin.