Thursday, December 23, 2010

the name game

Reverb question of the day by Becca Wilcott:

Prompt: New name. Let's meet again, for the first time. If you could introduce yourself to strangers by another name for just one day, what would it be and why?

I have never been in love with my name. I am generally partial to female names that end in “a” (Juliana, Amelia, et cetera), but “Patricia” just sounds a little too militant for my taste. And though I go by “Tricia,” doctors, dentists and telemarketers invariably reduce my name to “Pat,” a handle that made me cringe even before the woefully androgynous Saturday Night Live character had been invented.

If Becca had asked this question when I was in fourth grade, I would have said “Jill Jackson.” I was in love with alliterative names then (I grew up in the era of duos like Captain and Tenille, and thought Toni Tenille was very, very groovy), and Jill Jackson was the moniker I had given to both my imaginary persona and the main character in my first book. I imagined her to look something like Kristy McNichol circa 1980: medium brown shoulder-length hair with carefree but well-tamed feathers; coffee-colored eyes that were both innocent and savvy; self-sufficient and assured, but touchingly vulnerable underneath. Sometimes, she smoked cigarettes (like McNichols’ character in “Little Darlings”) and wore a denim jacket; at other times, she was athletic—a distance runner, or the only girl pitcher in her Little League. She was also gifted with animals (bunnies and squirrels and chipmunks, not just your average house pets) and was something of a loner—by choice, of course.

And “Jill” seemed to me the quintessential 80’s teenager: she was pretty, but not beautiful. She wore mini-skirts and leggings and lip gloss and adorable ankle-length boots. She liked the Rolling Stones, but also enjoyed the theater. In fact, she was based in part on my childhood mentor, a real-life Jill who studied journalism at Brandeis University and introduced me to David Bowie and the women’s cross-country team.

In fifth grade, I discovered Greek and Roman mythology. My friend (and doppelganger) Wendy Delfino and I found old curtains in the attic of my house and wrapped them around ourselves, imagining them to look like the long white robes worn by Aphrodite and Demeter in the books we took out of the library. Around that time, I liked to pretend that my name was Diana: Goddess of the Hunt (loved her bow and arrow), or Athena: Goddess of War and Truth. Both were lean, dark-haired, and buff—but not so muscular as to appear unfeminine. Diana lived in the woods and hunted wild boars. Athena had sprung from the head of Zeus like a lightning bolt.

In high school, I continued to write fiction, and as my characters became more complex, so did their names. Alliteration and Hellenophilia (that’s a love of Greek culture, folks) were ever present: the heroine of my interconnected short stories was Ariana Alexandros (her father was a Greek artist named Ajax. Hey, I was in high school). A few years later, I took a Russian Lit class and fell in love with the stories, and the name, of Tatyana Tolstaya. I had always loved Russian names, especially female ones: such a rich, sonorous blend of the guttural and the mellifluous. Anna Akhmatova. Katja. And the charming nicknames: Dmitri became Dimka. Mikhail was Mischa. Katerina was Kitty (or so she becomes in the English translation of Anna Karenina).

The Greek and Russian influence is evident in the name I would give myself if we were to meet again for the first time: Alexandra Bettencourt (for though I chose not to take my husband’s last name in real life, I do love its aristocratic sound). But you can call me Alex. Strength, beauty, and infallible sense.

The name I would choose for myself is the name I have bestowed upon my daughter—and, in another form, my dog. Alexa is an abbreviated version of my imagined appellation, and Sasha is the nickname by which many American “Alexandras” have chosen to go (in Russia, “Sasha” is usually a male nickname, for Alexander, or Aleksandr). Alexa was not my first choice, nor was it my second, but it’s a name I would gladly have taken myself. “Classy,” said the nurse in the Birthplace, where our daughter was born, when I told her the name on which we had settled.

Like most kids, Alexa will probably grow to dislike her name (she has already declared, on at least one occasion, that she would like us to call her “Sage”), but if she complains, I’ll let her know how much worse it would have been for her had she been born when her mother was reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy. “Alexa Bettencourt” will sound much more pleasing to her, I believe, than “Arwen” or “Galadriel” Bettencourt. And at least no one will ever call her Pat (though they may refer to her as “Al”).

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

I love this! So fluid and rich with detail. Lovely.