A childhood neighbor’s father died this past week, and I sent off notes to her and her husband with my condolences. She married a man from my high school class, and I noticed on the Facebook profile her maiden name, how I know her, and her long-married name, the evolution of her identity.

She’s been married a long time and so probably it is familiar to call herself by the new name. But it reminded me of the ways we are never truly our own identity, just a conglomeration of those given to us by others and by circumstance.

Once long ago I tried to write an essay about how we never really decide who we are in name. Others decide it for us.

From birth, when our parents bestow on us a name chosen with care and determination, often linked to beloved relatives long since past. Sometimes the name comes with meaning deliberate and profound.

Sometimes it’s just the name of the era, a whim, following the crowd as we do in so many other ways. After all, you hear about all the Jennifers and Jasons of a certain time, given way to the Sophies and Aidens of the next generation.

And we are anointed with our father’s surname, the patrilineal descent that is so hard to escape. Some families hyphenate, giving homage to the mother, which is really homage to the mother’s father down the line.

When women marry, they face the dilemma of whether to change names or not, and so much depends on when they marry and how much they have accomplished. Some keep the maiden name, some take the married name, some combine the two.

My first marriage, I eagerly changed to my husband’s name, believing it prophetic, since his name of German origin really means writer. 

But then the marriage ended and I carried on his name – linked with my children, forever linked to an unsuccessful union, too.

We tell ourselves stories of who we are and who we want to be. I debated dropping the surname and just going by my first and middle names indefinitely and forever. And when I was poised to marry Dan, I continued the internal debate, since he had no feelings on the subject whatsoever.

In the end, you know, I took his surname because it just seemed the next step in the process of life, but I think about it still. I am a Golodner now – what does that mean?

My children’s friends often call me Mrs. Schreiber because that’s how they know my kiddos. And in a way, that is my best, longest-lasting role yet.

But I have to admit – I don’t know that I am a Schreiber or a Golodner or a Cohn. I have books and articles bylined in all three, and they are all me. At the same time, none of them are. The consistency is the voice, and how can we possibly name that?

This neighborhood friend and her name – I’m sure she never gave it much notice. She’s in a lasting marriage with a sweet man, and so the family are all united in name and in mission.

The other day, I had an hour-long conversation with my ex, a very nice one at that. Perhaps it’s a turning of the tide to an era of collaboration and kindness. I sure hope so. And at the end of it all, as I hung up the phone, I pondered these liaisons we take up and drop as we go through life.

We ended so many years ago and we were never quite eternally happy together, though we tried to be. Our children shuttle back and forth between us, and we nurse the wounds that never heal, the questions of what-if and maybes.

I live now with a lovely man whom I love and have fun with. A good choice, definitely, a happy, harmonious home, with extensive tentacles reaching out in directions of ex’s and ex-families still linked to us by our beloved children.

How can we possibly choose one definitive name for who we are? For so many years, all I wanted was union and love and marriage. And now that I have it, I wonder if deep down inside, we all aren’t ultimately living alone, even if we share moments and hours and days and years with people we’ve designated as favorites.

And so what is the name for that? I love the idea that at a point, we choose to be who we are and we slap a name on that, chosen carefully and poetically. Or perhaps our names don’t really matter, like our external appearances which grapple us lifelong.

The concept of who we are living deep within and having nothing to do with the superficial details is one that is hard to grasp – but I know it to be true. And so no name could quite capture the essence of who I am.

The web and weave of a life and an identity is too complicated and detailed to really grasp. Perhaps the lesson is simply to live and be still, to recognize goodness in all its forms, and to not cling to any one name as the changing winds bring them in and send them out.

We humans have an insatiable need to name things, categorize, own and distill. But that’s not what the world is like. The animals roam freely in the forests and savannas, wholly unaware that they have been named. It can’t rein them in, no matter how hard we try.

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