I come from one of those families where all the kids have the same first letter first name; in our case, the letter “J.” This was not exactly planned — my mother talks about when she became pregnant with me, her grandmother (my great-grandma Aina, a Swedish immigrant housewife on a dairy farm in the rural Upper Midwest) started sending her lists and lists of J names, since my older brother’s name began with a J. “So I guess her name will start with a J,” my mom concluded. From there, the choice of a name was easy for her.
My namesake was a nurse who was a mentor to my mother. I don’t know if she was in fact a nursing instructor when my mother was in nursing school, or if she worked at the hospital where my mom started her nursing career after college. In any case, she was an older French woman who had come to the U.S. following an American G.I. after World War II. Her name was Janine Gibbs. I only met Janine once. We went to visit her (was it far away or close by? I honestly can’t remember), and she had extremely cool and unusual toys for my cousin and I to play with while our mothers chatted with Janine. She lived in a rural area; I remember big, wide fields and not many other houses. I think I was probably six years old when we visited, and she seemed old at the time, but she was probably only in her 70s. I think she lived quite a bit longer after that visit. She was small and narrow, with short, curly old lady hair and only the faintest of accents, which made sense; by the time I met her in the early 90s, she had already been living in the U.S. for more than 40 years.
My middle name is Ruth, after my grandmother, and my great-grandmother (on my grandfather’s side, who died before I was born), and my godmother, whose middle name is also Ruth. It is a strong, good name of which I am regularly proud. I like my name and always have. It suits me. It is just unique enough to make me feel special, but common enough that generally folks say it correctly.
I kept my last name after I got married for reasons that feel both laudable and mundane. Yes, there is some feminism in there, but there is also plain laziness and a lack of interest in my husband’s last name. If we were to have children though (something that we have recently taken off the table, but I reserve the right to put it back on the table in the next few years, should something monumentally shift in our own lives, or the wider world lol), I would give them my husband’s last name. One, for the convenience of it, but also because my name, particularly my last name, is tied to a family and to a person (my dad) that those hypothetical children will never meet, will never know, while they would know their namesakes on their father’s side. My last name is tied to a family, to a man associated with some deeply felt issues — and trauma. Giving my kid that name would tie them to that in an abstract way (those relatives aren’t my family; my dad is dead) and I don’t think I would want that for them. It’s my name and my history, but it wouldn’t necessarily be theirs and I don’t know if I want to saddle them (and myself) with explaining and retreading that throughout our lives. Meanwhile my husband’s name is associated with a large, loving family that is much easier to explain, understand, and love.
However, with my brother’s death, I do feel some sense of obligation to my last name; before my brother died, I wouldn’t have, for instance, considered inserting my last name in as a middle name for a child. I think now I would. What about hyphenating this hypothetical and likely imaginary child’s last name, you ask? No thanks. Like taking my husband’s last name, I am not particularly interested in the complications of this, though our last names would be easy to hyphenate, as they are both short, single syllable last names.
The woman I babysat for most of my youth had eight kids and a firm rule about naming them. “You should be able to put the words ‘Supreme Court Justice’ in front of your kid’s name without hesitation,” she used to say. I always loved this, but as I have gotten older I am of course cognizant of the implications — of class, of race, of ethnicity, of language. Naming conventions can be totally arbitrary but deeply embedded and imbued with meaning for the folks doing and having the naming. There are, on the other hand, so many cultural communities with strong beliefs and practices around naming. I do not come from one of those communities.
But I come from the kind of community where girls (always girls) can rattle off a list of “boy” and “girl” names for their future and hypothetical children. I am one of those girls. I have held a certain name so close to me for so long that my mother-in-law told her daughter not to give her child that name. Imagine how guilty I feel about that now!!!
Those who know me, however, know that the spelling of my name is not Janine but Jeanine, which was intentional on my mom’s part; she wanted to be able to call me “Jean” or “Jeanie” for short. “Jeanie” never really caught on (thankfully), until my nieces and nephews started to be born. When I hear “Jeanie” from an adult, it usually means they have mispronounced my name, which regularly grinds my gears, if I’m honest (shoutout to my hometown dentist who called me Jeanie for nearly 20 years!). “Jean” on the other hand is a pretty intimate term and there are only a few people who call me that and only on occasion, in shorthand in an email or a card. “Jean the Bean” and “Jeanie Beanie” and their variations have followed me around since I was a toddler, and elicit a very tender feeling. My uncle Suds (a great nickname of a great guy, may he rest in peace), called me “Jeanie Bean” my entire life and I miss hearing it from him. Some of my childhood friends, (like friends from before kindergarten), can still refer to me as Jeanie Bean as well. My youngest aunt will still call me just “Bean” in specific situations; if we are in the same room and she is asking me to hand her something or help with something. “Hey, Bean, grab this pitcher and put it on table.” It is, to me, an incredibly intimate act.
I had a slew of offhanded nicknames in high school and college. For some reason in high school someone started calling me Jazzy (I vaguely remember it having to do with DJ Jazzy Jeff but I cannot remember much past that lol), which then became just Ja. I sign cards to my high school friends, “Ja.” In college, in an effort to spell and say my name correctly, my dormmates started calling me J-9. Sometimes they still do. Unlike lifelong nicknames, these are connected to a more specific time, place, and people and do not travel with me much beyond those circles.
I have been thinking a lot about nicknames since my brother died. The three men closest to me in my family — my dad, my uncle, my brother — have all died. Each of them, in ways important and not, were defined by their nicknames. More people knew my dad as T-bird than they did by Steve; my Uncle Suds was so iconic, the Michigan NPR affiliate did a piece on him after he died; my brother was known so affectionately as Dubs that it is on his gravestone. I have so much more to say about these men and their nicknames, how each man was shaped by his nickname, but you asked about my name, and their names are, of course, not mine.
“Historically, homes have been a unit of consumption and production. Some homes consumed grain while producing children and textiles, for example. In Cold War America’s propaganda and policy, the home became exclusively a unit of consumption. The kitchen was the consuming center of that home.”
“Here, Rooney illustrates an unfortunate but glaring truth – the majority of fiction that attempts to speak to the present moment is embarrassing.” (Except Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet which no one is reading even though I have told all of you to read it!!!)
“Literary phone sex! What a time to have a pulse.” (I’m so sorry I AM a Sally Rooney fan girl)
“And also for anybody who is freaked out by a woman claiming her own space, shut the fuck up.”
“For Britney, none of this turned out to be metaphor. Despite making millions of dollars for men who deemed her fit to work, she was told she couldn’t drive, see her friends or repaint her kitchen cabinets.”