Sometimes I forget that I once had another last name. Out of the (nearly) 40 years I have been on earth, for about 10 of them I had a different name. For some reason I slipped into and then back out of that name too easily; too young to understand the exact meaning of the change at first and then old enough to demand the return to the name on my birth certificate, my father’s name, without a second look back.
The other name? I don’t hate it. It became a part of my identity for a time. It’s a name that comes with a deep, dark history, like many other names. It’s also a name that changed my perceived nationality, I went from British to Polish in a country that was neither; immigrant from a place that my name didn’t come from, squished between the traditions and history of a new family and one that was suddenly far, far away. It’s funny how easy it is to judge someone solely based on their name, isn’t it?
I have always known that my anxiety and fear of rejection has stopped me from really pursuing the career in writing that I dreamt of as child. Anxiety and a few other things, I suppose. I often pondered the idea of using a pen name. It would have worked perfectly: I wouldn’t have felt that constant fear I feel every time I hit the publish or send button. I would have been fearless, pitching relentlessly, knocking on agents’ doors, caroling them with my poetry, whispering my essays over dinner. I could have molded my alter ego into someone I could hide behind, an empty puppet with my brain and my voice.
But I’m very attached to my name, my original name, but not because of its origins, and not because I lost it for a while either. With the Smiths and the Joneses my surname is right up there with the most common British names. I do therefore thank my parents for choosing a less common first name, and still remain a little sad that my second name, although chosen and discussed, never made it onto my birth certificate. It’s much deeper than just a name to me: it’s my father’s name, and it comes to an end with my sister and me. Our branch of Hughes’s is done, and when I read my name in a byline or on a book, it makes me think that somehow, somewhere we will keep our name there, stamped into the path that I tread on. I was 10 when my father died, and even the (temporary) erasure of his name didn’t erase him from my life (and that wasn’t anyone’s goal anyway).
My 10 or 12 or even 14 year old self took the other, different, name in her stride, until she didn’t anymore. It was what it was, it made sense for us all to have the same name if we moved abroad, it was supposed to make administration tasks a lot easier (which ended up being completely incorrect in France, not having the same surname as the one on your birth certificate caused a lot of back and forth).
I sometimes wonder if there are people who I went to school with who randomly think of me and search for me under that name. Somehow I doubt it, those I had a connection with have either found me or I them, and we probably never lost contact anyway. And those I met in the late 90’s and beyond have no idea that I had another name. When I think back to that Jade my heart melts a little and I want to hold her. She was always so good at taking things in her stride and pretending they were OK.
But that Jade is so far away now, that Jade with that name, she’s a part of me, but a part I tend to tuck away into a little pocket. She needed protection anyway, so I might as well protect her now. That name came with a lot of weight, heavy on all of our shoulders. Changing it back again was simple, my mother requested a letter from her solicitor in England, the one who had done the initial name change, and I sent it along with my birth certificate and old passport with a new passport application. Three weeks later and my new passport arrived. By the age of 19 I had changed my name twice. Our mailbox on our apartment in the center of Grenoble had three names on it, even though only a mother and her two daughters lived there: maiden name, old name, father’s name. But most people who met me after 1999 have no idea that I used to be Jade P rather than Jade H.
Sometimes I laugh when people stumble over pronouncing Hughes, not out of annoyance or spite, because it reminds me so much of how impossible it is to say in French, while the other name, more ethnic, more difficult to say to an English speaker, was easier. I learnt to say it and spell it out, it’s still a natural habit, Hughes H-U-G-H-E-S...
Now my children have their father’s name and my name, hyphenated, not just because it’s the traditional Mexican way, but also because it’s important to me that my children have their father’s name, but also their grandfathers’ names, both of whom they will never meet. A name will never be just a name to me, it’s a sign of where you are from, a piece of your history that you bring along with you. At the same time it never surprises me when people say that they want to change their name for something else, sometimes the weight can be too hard to carry.
I won’t change my name when I marry, I like it just how it is now, and I don’t feel that changing my name should be a necessity when you marry. A personal choice, yes, not a necessity. It’s funny, because it wasn’t until I read an essay a couple of weeks ago in the wonderful anthology All the Women in my Family Sing that I suddenly thought about that surname that I carried for a while as a kid. And since I started writing this piece I have been submerged by memories of things I had forgotten, or buried, all the while being inspired to work on something I started in 2011 and then set aside.
There really is so much more to our names than we can even imagine.