My Many Names

Ibsen’s  controversial character “Nora,” first seen in the 1879 production of A Doll’s House, remains relevant today.  (Photo: Old Globe Theater)

There was a time when I had two birthdays, one in the winter and another in the summer. The winter one was a Latvian nameday, but that didn’t matter to me since it was celebrated the same way, with presents and a cake. The American kids that I met had never heard of such a thing. Nor had they heard of my name. Originally “Ilze,” it had been changed to “Ilse” by the time that my parents and I became naturalized citizens of the United States. I sort of liked it since it was a variant of “Elizabete,” which was my maternal grandmother’s name. And Oma more or less raised me since my mother worked a lot. What I didn’t like was that my mother was called “Elza,” which she changed to “Elsa.” Americans pronounced my name like her’s and assumed that we had the same name. What I liked even less was having my name pronounced “Elsie.” That belonged to the Borden Dairy Company’s mascot, and my classmates got a kick out of calling me “Elsie the Borden Cow.” Even though I wasn’t the least bit bovine.

Fortunately, my mortifying moniker was dropped well before I took my seat at the cool kids’ table. Still I never lost the feeling that meeting people for the first time involves unpleasantness. Particularly when my name is read, not heard. It doesn’t help that the first two letters–“Il”–look similar. So I try to cut those calling me “Ise” or “Lse” some slack. I even avoid correcting those who haven’t a clue how to pronounce a short “e” at the end of a word. After all, they consistently screw up “Porsche.” But I draw the line at people with no sign of a reading disorder turning dyslexic at the sight of my name. Surely they can see that I don’t resemble a tract of land surrounded by water, which is what “Isle” means. So when those types then ask how my name should be pronounced, I say, “Pretty much how it’s spelled.” And to those who then exclaim, “What an unusual name!” I respond, “Not really.” At last count, “Ilze” was the only given name of some 12,226 females in little Latvia alone. And there are the countless others called “Ilse” in the rest of Europe and beyond. As well as several rivers, an asteroid and a plant. But no islands, as far as I can tell.

Choosing a research career made me more apprehensive. Somehow, I kept coming across data that showed that strange names put people at a disadvantage. As far back as 1948, a Harvard study found that men with unusual names were likely to flunk out or display signs of neurosis. Subsequent studies showed that names could affect nearly every aspect of life. While some conclusions had to be withdrawn due to methodological flaws, findings on name-signalling—what names say about ethnicity, religion, social sphere and socioeconomic status—remained robust. Even when siblings with different names but of the same background were used. Moreover, changing names was found to have beneficial effects. Stockholm University economists, for instance, found that re-named immigrants made an average of 26 per cent more in wages than those who kept their original names. I wondered why I’d only assumed my husband’s Scottish surname when we married and retained it when we divorced when I could’ve easily changed my given name on either occasion.

What stopped me, I suppose, was how my family might react. But even after my grandmother and father died and my mother came to live with me in Maryland and told me that she, too, had never liked her name, I did nothing. Even after I’d started writing and, at least, could have picked a pen name. The basic reason was that no other name felt right. I knew that since I’d systematically considered every imaginable possibility. I had lots of time during my daily commute to and from Washington, DC, where I worked as a NASA and Defense Department consultant. It was 80-some miles and included three of the worst bottlenecks in the nation, I went from “A” to “Z” for several days, dismissing most. “Anna” wouldn’t work since it was reserved for my nascent novel, Anna Noon”“Zelda” was as weird as “Ilze” and too closely associated with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s schizophrenic wife. In the end, only one name remained: “Claire,” a Latin word meaning “clear” in the French feminine form. It described how I saw myself at the time, which was open and transparent. And brought me back to the Sixties, when I devoured New Wave films such as Claire’s Knee.

While I never did anything with “Claire,” the process reminded me how much effort it takes to name a child. And how little was expended on me. I don’t know what I expected since neither my conception nor my parents’ marriage was planned. And my father, at least, assumed that I’d be a boy based on the size of Mom’s baby bump. He’d even started to call me Maks,” meaning “Max,” Which had a rakish ring I liked when learning about it later. But after seeing me ex utero, my father knew that he had to find a female name for the registry. And fast. Fortunately, a friend—a fraternity brother and drinking buddy, no doubt—had recently named his newborn. So, why not call me “Ilze,” as well? I know that we were in the middle of World War II. That the Soviet Army was advancing. That Valmiera, the city where my parents were sent to work and where, by chance, I was born, was about to be burned to the ground. Still, it might’ve been nice if someone had done more than merely name me after some random baby.

It took 60-some years for me to learn that someone had given my name some thought. Shortly after her 90th birthday, my mother casually mentioned that she never intended to name me “Ilze.” That, even in the womb, she’d called me “Nora.” After the iconoclastic character in Henrik Ibsen’s protofeminist play A Doll’s House. Only she’d never said a word to my father. At first, I was furious. Then, I allowed that she, like others living amid political turmoil, had made a habit of keeping her cards close to her chest. Still, I couldn’t help feeling unduly cheated. Having a familiar, pronounceable name like “Nora” would have made life in the States much easier. More than that, it would’ve made me more secure in my identify, even my place in the world. Instead of feeling that I was a disappointment to my family because I struggled against societal constraints every step of the way, I could’ve felt that this was what I was meant to do. I might have even seen my mother’s disinterest in teaching me what I needed to know to be a wife and mother as something more than mere neglect. Of course, I kept these thoughts to myself. Instead, I imagined how my mother might’ve shared her hopes and dreams with me as a one-month-old infant in my first short story, “Making Soup.”

It took a contentious presidential campaign to convince me that I never needed some name change to empower me. In writing my essay “No Big Deal” about Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, I referenced some remarkable women on both sides of my family whose accomplishments dated as far back as the Nineteenth Century. And my native land, which installed the first female president back in 1999. As to the careless way that I was given my name, a big brown beard celebrating both her birthday and her nameday in January took care of that. She just happened to live in a nature preserve in Līgatne, Latvia, which is less than 12 miles from Cēsis, where my father grew up on the family farm. And my father—in fact, most family members that I knew—used the diminutive “Ilzīte” unless I did something to deserve the severe-sounding “Ilze.” And “Ilzīte” just happened to be the bear’s name, and it so perfectly conveyed how lovable bears could be that I almost cried. Then cried for real when I remembered that all of my immediate family members were gone, and no one had called me “Ilzīte” since my cousin in England died five years ago. 

Celebrating a birthday, then a nameday. (Source: Līgatne Nature Trails)

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5 thoughts on “My Many Names”

  1. Dear Ilse,
    What a wonderful essay. Even though I can’t address you as Ilzete here as that might just seem a little overly familiar, you have definitely endeared yourself to me with this story. I laughed as I read, recalled my own many past issues surrounding my given name and my sister’s as well. My sister was Nelly and teased “Nellybelle” (a horse [or was it a jeep] on the long-ago Roy Rogers TV show). We thought our names so Victorian and uncool, and both sister and I ended up adopting other names professionally. But to each other we were always Nel and Em.
    On your musing about the name Claire, it has always been one of my favorites if I were to pick. I once knew a beautiful Russian-born woman (she’s still alive in her 90’s now) who when she was young had adopted the name Claire in favor of her more foreign sounding given name.
    Thanks for sharing your wonderful story!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Emma. And thanks for sharing your stories. I wonder how many other people don’t like their given names. Maybe it’s similar to hating the sound of your voice when it’s played back to you. UGH, that can’t possibly be me! For what it’s worth, I love the name “Emma.” OK, there’s Austin’s Emma. But there’s also Flaubert’s Emma. And, since you mention old TV shows, there was that fierce Emma Peel on The Avengers. Not to mention that it’s perfect with your surname. Finally, I appreciate your appreciation of European familiar/formal forms of address. But, hey, I’m mainly American now. We could split the difference. Use the familiar “Ilzīte,” but only with formal pronouns. That’s me being silly.

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  2. Dearest Nora-Ilze-Ilse-Ilzīte et al! My middle sister named her three daughters Tija, Līzīte, and Nora. Then she was reconnected with the child she had given up for adoption as a teenager, and discovered a Lisa.

    Me? I now revel in Gundega, tricky or not for an American tongue. Admittedly, I often give “Miss G” in waiting rooms where my name needs calling out.

    My parents registered me in school as Gunda. At home, of course, this morphed into the lovingly affectionate Gundiņa. In childhood, I preferred Gunda to Gundega, as so much easier for Americans–though in elementary school the kids managed to turn it into Gunboat, which is not much better than Borden’s Elsie. At my naturalization in my teens, I was going to make Gunda formally my name–until the man looked at my papers and asked, with a sneer, “Whaddya gonna change *THIS* to?” “Nothing,” I said. “I like it fine.”

    I’ve never regretted it.

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    1. I’d take being called a gunboat over a cow any day. (Even though I’d rather live in a world that favors cows over gunboats.) I always liked “Gundega” for its fiery feel. (“Dega” = “burned.”) Imagine my surprise when I looked it up just now and saw it translates to “buttercup.” And, yes, I do see why.

      For me, at least, accepting my given name had a lot to do with accepting my national origin. For so long, I wanted to be identified only as an American. Embracing both feels better. N’est-ce pas, Buttercup?

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