friend from university just sent me a postcard. It’s her eccentric way of maintaining a small but persistent dose of singularity. Doing what we think others don’t can make us interesting, or so we think. On the card is a surrealist image of a man looking at a wall that opens out to the sea. The text reads: “Please know I have changed my name.”
Digging for details about once-private matters in the non-discreet cyberspace age can feel like a hormonal compulsion, if not an addiction. New-age mammals immediately sniff around for details or dirt, or both. We check and check again. I’m no different.
My friend Janice is now Amy. Replying to the postcard through a more conventional email, I ask her why she made the switch. “Because I don’t feel like an Janice any more. In fact, I’ve felt like an Amy for years. I just decided to make it official.”
And so she has, attaching a scan of several elaborate seals and a court documentswith repeated use of the words “hereby” and “attest,” both of which legal scents like bloodhounds.
Since the new Amy has little more to say about old Janice, I’m reminded of another name change, my father’s.
In 1928, at age 31, my father grew weary of his overused given name Frank, followed by the infelicitous middle name Hyman. These names represented a heavy burden for a man in a hurry to cover the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, European fascism, and also eager to fit into what was then a largely anti-Semitic and ethnically judgmental Manhattan scene.
Starting at age 13, just before World War I, he’d already begun writing a variation on his incipient name into the books he owned. His copy of “The Discourses of Epictetus,” which I found long after his death, contains the signature Percival Horace Winner, each letter formed in handsome, careful cursive. This was no Janice-to-Amy transformation. He shot the moon. Frank and the nagging Hyman were ditched for good, replaced by a name Disraeli might have envied. At the time, Percival was fashionable, Horace poetic, and his Winner surname inescapable.
But the elaborate concoction didn’t last.
Soon after the war, in the early 1920s, Percival and Horace were banished for sounding too long-winded and pretentious, which in fact they were. The signature turned into the far neater Percy Winner.
Yet the new Percy faced Janice’s dilemma: the official world didn’t recognize unofficial changes. So would-be Percy, like would-be Amy, did it right. Frank Hyman Winner went to court (in Manhattan) and had the name changed, producing documents also loaded with the standby words “attest” and “hereby”(some things never change). I knew nothing of this maneuver in my father’s lifetime. Keen on protecting old school privacy, he took the secret to his grave, and only when I sifted through his papers did I find the seals and certificates.
Born in Brooklyn to a Russian-émigré Jewish family, my father’s rebellious turn-of-the-20th-century logic made sense. He wanted out of the second-guessing heaped on a widely contested faith that would soon suffer unspeakable consequences for simply existing. But his choice was lasting. Upon my birth decades later he had me baptized a Catholic, my mother’s Polish creed, in Rome. Not fond of any faith but my own, I remember only wailing at being splashed around in dubiously holy water.
Janice-become-Amy says there’s nothing so complex about her choice. She “feels” the new name. It’s the verbal black dress she’s always coveted and now she’s more at home, eager to sign handwritten letters.
If only such letters were still in vogue, which they’re not, leaving the brand new Amy to reckon with a brave new world in which the cursive curves of character matter as little signing off on a communication with “sincerely” or “best wishes,” superfluous both, assembly line emoticons in their place.