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The Name Game


Last month we went out to supper, my husband, our son, his stepchild and my brother. We went to the Suisse Hutte in Egremont on what should have been Pete’s and my 50th anniversary—if we hadn’t taken a 16-year sabbatical to work through our individual issues.

Nevertheless it felt like a golden wedding anniversary to me and I wanted to go to that specific restaurant to celebrate. It was there that we had retired in 1969, following all the formal wedding festivities, with a coterie of close friends who had traveled long distances to see us wed and with whom we had not been able to visit. We drank far into the night to our then-bright future before going our separate ways.

In 1969 we could not have envisioned the complications the coming years would bring. All was shiny and bright and new. When we sat at the Hutte 50 years later, I was seated next to a man to whom I have been legally married for 37 years and from whom I never emotionally disconnected. The “only thing different, the only thing new” (in the words of Patsy Cline) was that both times we married, I vowed fidelity to Peter Bickford and now I was sitting next to Peter Henry Hubbard-Brown.

Pete had changed his name legally a week before, shedding the surname of his much-despised step-father, taking as his middle name that of a beloved uncle and hyphenating the names of his biological father and mother. He said it was his final step in removing himself from the toxicity of his natal family.

Now, I admit, I was a bit nonplussed by his decision to change his name. Peter Bickford is such a tidy name—short, concise, easy to spell and pronounce. It fits on short lines on government and medical forms and, besides, I was used to it after all these years. But I could hardly object because, as it happens, I had already changed my name twice—when I first married him and then, legally, when we divorced.

When in 1984, I told my family I planned to change my name, my mother suggested I take my much-loved father’s middle name (his mother’s maiden name). This was a splendid solution. I had feared I would offend him by not taking back his surname, but, truth be told, I had never liked my maiden name. Wohlfert is a name with no definition when it emerges from the mouth, making a faintly whooshing sound. You can easily say it with a mouthful of mashed potatoes.

In contrast to the name’s lack of hard edges, my Wohlfert ancestors tended to be a flinty lot and I was much fonder of the Boughton breed—so the decision was made and I loved it. When I emerged from the courtroom with no husband and a new name, I felt invigorated for the first time since Pete and I had separated. There had never been another Kathryn Boughton in our family—it was not my father’s identity nor my husband’s. This person could be anything I chose her to be.

So when Pete changed his name, I conjured up the memory of that sense of liberation and tried not to think about the labyrinthine process of changing it on all his different records—you don’t get to be our age without having your name inscribed on a lot of forms. But beyond taxes, the VA and Medicare records, there is no denying that we have created a genealogical nightmare.

Consider this: we both once carried the name Bickford; now neither does. Pete and I have a son who is still named Bickford—the name of his non-grandfather. He has a life partner who uses the name of her ex-husband while her child, who he loves as his own, carries his absent father’s name. They have taken in a foster child and, needless to say, that boy’s name is his own.

Peter’s younger son from his second marriage has a hyphenated name from his father and mother. His children, however, use only Bickford, with no mention of the maternal name. No wonder our granddaughter asked in confusion, “So where does Bickford come from?”

Modern American society has changed dramatically in recent decades. Dick and Jane’s neat little home on Cherry Street with Mother and Father has morphed into an unfettered definition of family that includes married and unmarried couples—with kids and without—single parents who have children conceived without partners; adoptive families; same-sex couples; and some really unorthodox households that include different combinations of the above. So, having a family where no one seems to have the same name may not be particularly unusual. As Shakespeare asked, “What’s in a name?” The answer: not much until you try to enter it into Family Tree Maker.