When I met my husband and found out his parents had chosen not to give him a “proper Christian name” when he was born, I felt a little sorry for him. It’s not that his parents were free-wheeling hippies who named him something unique and strange like Freedom or Lightbulb, or gave him no name at all until he was old enough to pick his own. His name is Rick. Not Richard. Not Ricardo. Just plain old Rick. And there’s no middle name to offset the simplicity of his given name. They didn’t even allow him the joy of a dipping middle initial so he could sign checks with a flourish. His stubby name hovering above my “Elizabeth L. Lastname” on our marriage license looks lopsided. And maybe a bit like I married an elementary school student who has no need of a full and legal name on the top of his math homework.
Because Mom had fallen in love with poor, consumptive Beth March the first time she read Little Women, that is the name that is mostly mine, but I grew up with a host of nicknames, many derivatives of Elizabeth (with the exception of Betty): Mickey Monahan, Herbie Schwartz,Venus Tannesbaum, and Zoomy. She called me these names often enough that when an aunt once jokingly asked, "What's your name, little girl?," my toddler self responded with my name and then added, “I fink.” I had no idea who I was.
My name perplexes Rick as much as his does me. When we were writing our vows last November, we had to have a lengthy discussion about whether he would refer to me as Beth or Elizabeth. I assumed I’d be Elizabeth, primarily because that’s what the receptionist calls when it’s my turn to get my teeth cleaned and so it seems official, but after he said, “But I think of you as Beth,” I had to concede that I too thought of myself as Beth. We compromised. The minister announced our legal names at the beginning of the service and then used the shortened version for the remainder of the ceremony.
Last month at the MFA residency, I went to a presentation about how to survive as a writer in the 21st Century, where I was encouraged to get a website for myself. Because Elizabeth sounds professional and grown-up, I’ve always assumed that’s who I was meant to be as a writer. I typed it into the web browser with a .com at the end to try it on for size. It looked nice. Literary. I hit send, to announce to the universe that I had arrived.
I’m the only person with my last name in this corner of Indiana, so imagine my annoyance when a message popped up saying that my legal name was someone else’s future homepage. It felt kind of horrible. Like I’d just come home from a day in the forest and discovered Goldielocks sleeping in my bed.
I typed in the shorter version and, voila, it is available. Web availability seems like a bad reason to choose a pen name, but I hate the .net or .org I’ll have to use if I want to stick with Elizabeth. And I do feel a little weird when people in workshops see the Elizabeth on my manuscripts and then spend the next week calling me that. Elizabeths brush their hair and would never wear Crocs or read chick lit, and that's pretty much how I live my life. Plus, I have long had this juvenile fantasy wherein Oprah interviews me, calls me Elizabeth, and I touch her hand and say softly, “Oprah, please call me Beth.” I want things to be friendly and casual between Oprah and me.
But now I’m feeling really possessive of my full name. I want to hire a broker to buy it from the woman who can’t even be bothered to set up a homepage. I want to retain a team of lawyers and win the right to my Elizabethan domain. I kind of want to give this other Elizabeth a little smack for having the audacity to steal my rightful name.
The conflict in my brain rages on, and I'm mildly jealous that Rick has none of these complications. He is who he is.
Maybe I should avoid the whole dilemma and go with something completely different. Venus Tannesbaum maybe. That seems to be available.