Contributed by Caroline Leavitt
Here I am in the Jersey City court house on a bright, shiny day in 2017. I’m standing behind a guy who is telling the judge that he needs to change his name to Heave Ho. “Why would you want to do that?” the judge asks, brow buckling. “It’s my pirate name,” the guy says. The judge throws up his hands but he allows it.
And then it’s my turn. I’m changing only three letters, Carolyn to Caroline, which seems like a simple uneventful, thing to do, but to me, it feels like a lifting of a curse.
I know, I know: what’s in a name? Well, a lot, actually. Jewish people name their kids after the dead to keep their memory alive. My father named me after his Aunt Carolyn, to please his mother. Carolyn was a name my mother hated, a woman my father dismissed, using her name only to please his mother. But like it or not, my name tethered me to that woman, long dead, that nobody seemed to care about.
My father died young, and my gorgeous older sister and my smart, gregarious mom, were an inseparable team. They dressed alike and even traded clothes, went to the same hair salon and plotted their lives. To me, they were always together, going to movies I was too young to see. My mom waited up for my sister after her dates, strategizing how my sister would fall in love with the right sort of boy, and marry, while I, a gangly, frizzy-haired high-schooler listened yearningly outside my sister’s bedroom door, feeling that they were talking about a world that I would never know. The only thing I had that was similar was that I sounded just like my sister, and sometimes, I’d be mistaken for her on the phone.
When I turned 17, my voice inexplicably changed. I grew a rasp so pronounced, I could no longer sing in the school chorus. But now, when people called on the phone, they didn’t instantly think I was my sister. And that excited me. I kept quiet, delighted, especially when one of my sister’s boyfriends asked me, “Where’d you get that sexy voice?”
I became more and more of an outlier. I made shirts out of dyed white sheets and wore orange windowpane tights and love beads. When that started to feel normal, I began to wear black all the time. I moved to Manhattan, the one place my mother and sister both disliked, but as soon as I hit the streets, I felt I was home
But of course, I still yearned for some family connection, never more so than when I came home and as if no time had passed, my mother and my sister would sit at the kitchen table talking like girlfriends.
One day, I heard them chatting disparagingly about my Aunt Caroline. My mom was one of six sisters, so tightly wrapped together, they might as well have been Kennedys. No one could enter their inner sanctum. “Like anyone should pay attention to her,” my mom said about Caroline. I hadn’t known my Aunt Caroline as a girl because my mother never wanted to see her, but I knew her as an adult because she knit and sent my baby son the most glorious sweaters, with owls in the design, or extravagant cables. She wrote me letters, and cards, and later, she came to every single reading I gave that was near her, even if her daughter Margie (whom I also loved), brought her in a wheelchair. I began to know her better, and Margie and Nancy, my other cousin who I began to love, too. My Aunt Caroline’s face lit up when she saw me. She loved everything I wore, everything I did. How could I help but love her back?
I began to act differently, as if I l actually were a Caroline, as if that name gave us a deeper bond and made me more like her. Caroline had style, crazy as it might be. She had hair that attracted attention. I began to use the name on my passport, my novels. I corrected people when they called me Carolyn, or Carrie, or Cat or Caro (except for one beloved friend Victoria, because she is allowed.) But my mother and sister still called me Carolyn, and every time they did, I still felt like a Carolyn. “I don’t like the name Caroline,” my mother said.
“Oh God, me either,” my sister said. “Why do you want to be named after an aunt no one accepted?”
Because she accepted me, I thought. Because she loved who I truly was..
“Well, Carolyn is your legal name,” my mom told me. “That’s what we know you by.” And then, suddenly, I knew what I had to do. Make it legal. Be known in a different way. It would be symbolic, surely, but maybe it would be a way to claim who I really was.
Changing your name in New Jersey is difficult. The process took six months, maybe because of paperwork, but maybe, too, to make certain that you were sure about this. That you weren’t making a mistake. I had to fill out six different forms, get a court date, and put a notice in the newspaper twice about my intentions so that anyone could object. I had to appear before a judge, but I wasn’t sure he would understand my truth, so I told him I wanted the name I used on my books, on my passport, to be legally mine. Making it legal, felt like an emancipation proclamation for me, a way to be free of all those old feelings that I wasn’t good enough, that I didn’t fit in, that I was Carolyn, sitting on the outside looking in.
When I got the paperwork, the embossed seal, my legal name, I stood in the middle of the city street, breathing hard and crying. I felt different, liberated; I kept saying my name out loud. Caroline Caroline Caroline. A woman passed me and stopped, putting one hand delicately on my shoulder. “Are you all right?” she said.
“Oh yes,” I said. “I am now.”
As soon as it was done, I told my mother and my sister. I said that I chose the name after my aunt for tradition. “But she’s alive,” my mother said. “Jews name for the dead.”
“I’m alive, too,” I said.
My sister sniffed. “You always do what you want, don’t you?” she said. Carolyn would have felt crushed by that remark. But Caroline gently smiled and said, “I do when it’s important.”
Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times Bestselling Author of Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow, and Cruel Beautiful World, which is out in paperback today! She reviews books for the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle and People Magazine and teaches novel writing online at Stanford and UCLA Extension Writers Program, as well as working with private clients. Come say hi to her at www.carolineleavitt.com. And never, ever call her Carolyn, she begs you.