Last Name First

I was born an uncommon person with a common last name. If you’re thinking, Smith? You’re in the ballpark.

When my mom married my French step-dad, he came with a coolio French name, which garnished many suck up comments like, “Oh French! I ate a croissant once.” I know. Mind, this was before “Freedom Fries”.

After playing with my name on grade school papers—step-name or bio-name? I remained with the dull but familiar.

When I was older, name mix-ups prompted an annoying amount of, “No, you have the wrong number" calls. I remember one fellow’s monthly warm messages, “Baby, I know you need me. I’m going to be there real soon...”

Telling him I wasn’t his gal didn’t slow him down. There must have been pages of my name in the phone book. Okay, maybe a few columns full but sufficeth to say, I was so over having a popular name.

The straw that broke my heart was while in graduate school. Twice, I was mistakenly sent the grade transcripts of my under grad step-sister. She, who was his child only by marriage, but got to bask in all my bio-dad’s attention. She, who had adopted his last name—making her full name and mine the same. Super.

I was about twenty when I began thinking, so what if I changed my last name legally? This was about 1986 and the only people who were changing names then were wacky sports stars. World B. Free was the recent, notorious example.

I researched names to weed out those historically who had that name and were, you know, axe murderers or idiots. The shortlist was Chagall, Bennet (yes I’m a huge nerd) or Dauphine—picked for their relatively clean history and harmonious sound with my first name.

I took my choice to a local lawyer with my savings and sweaty palms. He later became mayor with alleged corruption but to me he’ll always be a good guy. He said, “You can do this alone. You don’t need me.” Not in a brush-off way but in an empowering way because then he then spent over an hour describing exactly what would happen in court and charged me nothing.

I filed the documents for a legal name change and wore my navy interview suit to court. My fear and I went to the clerk’s office to check in and pay the $50 fee. I was told to wait in the hall and I’d be called into the judge’s chambers. I remember getting mistaken for a lawyer and that it boost my confidence immeasurably.

When I was called, I walked through the TV-stereotypical woody courtroom to the judge’s office. He sternly looked through my papers on his desk.

I hate to be weak so I was terrified I’d cry when I talked about the bottom line reason why I wanted to change my name—that my biological father hit my mother. Thankfully the judge read that in my statement and simply asked me to confirm verbally, “Is this true?” (You betcha.) “Yes, your Honour.”

A karmic gift came from the bio-dad that day. The Irish I get from him has translated into a few positive things and one consistently strong personality trait—a cussed drive to defend “fair”--even if that means pushing the truth envelope.

The judge’s final question intended to prove that my choice of Dauphine was not frivolous. (Thank you World B. Free.) He asked dourly, “Is Dauphine an old family name?”. I answered, “Yes.” What I didn’t specify was that it wasn’t necessarily my old, family name. It was my new family name.