So argued sweet, naïve Juliet about her love Romeo’s last name. Well, as we all know, the tale of Romeo and Juliet did not end well. While many lessons can be learned from this story of teen love gone tragically awry, for me, the lesson is that there is a lot at stake when it comes to your name. And sadly I’ve faced innumerable struggles with mine. Well, not innumerable. I can count them. In fact, to quote Elizabeth Barret Browning, “Let me count the ways.”
First, there is the lifelong struggle of my last name. All my life people have mispronounced it as Gay-lats. Wrong. It’s Gah-lahtz. Once in junior high school, a teacher taking attendance on the first day of class actually pronounced my name correctly. I was so used to correcting people that I said, “No, it’s Gay-lats.”
Growing up, I dreamed of marrying a man named Smith to simplify things. Instead, I married a man whose last name has an impossible-to-fit-on-insurance-forms 11 letters. To make matters worse, his last name begins with a “W,” so there’s that whole end-of-the-alphabet, last-person-to-be-called- upon-for-anything problem. I couldn’t save my future children from that blight upon childhood, but I sure as Hell wasn’t going to volunteer myself for it.
The curse of my apparently unpronounceable last name influenced my career choice. I became a journalist to fight evil and expose corruption in the world. But I became a television news reporter because I thought I could use the nightly opportunity to indoctrinate people about how to pronounce my name correctly. Five nights a week, I’d sign off, chirping brightly “Karen Galatz, NewsCenter 8.” Each time I would unnaturally slow down and emphasize my last name. But it didn’t work. Most people would just say, “Aren’t you what’s her name on TV?”
Ancestry.com, the popular genealogy website, says “Your last name gives you a sense of identity and helps you discover who you are and where you come from.” So, you can imagine the pain I feel each and every day when someone misnames anew. How can I identify with a name that isn’t pronounced correctly? It’s like calling a Marie, Mary or vis versa or calling Mr. Smith, not Mr. Smyth. Imagine the pain, I say.
Nowadays I found solace in one fact about my last name: It is relatively unique and in our interconnected world, that’s a plus. If long-lost friends want to Google me, I’m pretty easy to find. Imagine if I had married that long-yearned-for Mr. Smith. How many Karen Smiths are in the world?How would people know me from the other bazillion? How could they “friend” me on Facebook?
The decision to stick with my maiden name after marriage has been the almost three-decade source of the second struggle.Jon and I married in the mid-1980s. It was still a relatively new phenomenon for women to keep their maiden names, but decades have passed. By now, you would think people would accept my choice. But, alas, to this day, one of my brothers keeps calling me “Mrs. Wellinghoff.” The closest he gets to getting it right is “Mrs. Galatz.” He doesn’t get why my name is still Galatz and he definitely doesn’t get the Ms. thing either.And this, from my once free spirit, hippy-dippy brother, of all people.
My husband and I used to joke that we could tell which side of the family mail was from just by looking at how the envelope was addressed. If it was to Mr. and Mrs. Jon (spelled correctly) Wellinghoff, then it was from his family and friends.If it came to John (misspelled) Wellinghoff and Karen Galatz, it was likely from my side of the wedding aisle. (Unless, of course, it came from my confused, aforementioned hippy-dippy brother Mal, who addressed us as Mr. John Wellinghoff and Mrs. Karen Galatz.
My third name bane came with parenthood. Have a child and suddenly you lose your first name and last name, even your mispronounced last name. Overnight you are “Mom” to the world. “Mom” to the pediatrician. “Mom” to the waitress. “Mommy” when your own mother is talking to your children, which is just wrong on so many levels.I get she can’t really say, “Now, dear grandchildren, Karen – your mother, my daughter – won’t like it if you continue playing with matches.” It’s cumbersome, but somehow it just sounds wrong. Happily, my husband never lapsed into this unfortunate practice, otherwise divorce would have loomed, in which case I would have been looking for a Sugar Daddy, but that’s an entirely different matter.
And my final name lament is this: I live under an assumed name. No, I am not in a witness protection program nor is it by choice. No, this alter-ego existence has been forced on me by rushed and uncaring society. I live under an assumed name because people assume my name is simply Karen Galatz. But I have always preferred to write my name as Karen M. Galatz, so people will ask my middle name which I love. Unfortunately, nobody ever asks what the “M.” stands for. So, I suffer in silence.
As a child, I wanted to be called my middle name. I’d ask friends to guess my middle name and they’d always say “Mary.” “As in the Virgin Mary?” I would reply in outrage. “I’m Jewish.” “Maria?” they would ask again, this time a bit more hesitantly. “No, I’m not Italian or Latin American,” I’d reply with a snort and walk away.
Now my middle name is not linked to my religion or my Hungarian/Rumanian/Russian heritage. It’s French. So, I’m not sure I was in the rights expressing religious/cultural sensitivity, but anyway there it was. Nobody guessed. Nobody asked. Nobody really cared.
On forms, I used to write my name as Karen M. Galatz, but I fear it looks a little pretentious. So, I’ve mostly stopped. Nowadays I limit myself to squiggling a tiny M when I sign my name.
Only five people in my life have ever honored my desire to call me by my middle name, each, on their own, coming up with a cute nickname version of it: Two of my brothers (not the one confused about the Ms./Mrs. Question), my aunt, an old boyfriend and now my husband.My husband, in fact, never calls me Karen, and whenever I first meet a new colleague of his, they are confused as to who I am. They must think I’m a girlfriend, although they are probably equally confused about why he’d pick such a pudgy, tired-looking middle-aged girlfriend.
Anyway, it’s getting late and I want to post this essay. So, I close.
Karen M. Galatz*
*And in case you were wondering, my middle name is Michelle.