The Last Page

What's in a Name?

By Patricia B. Cadigan ’47

This is how the official document begins. An attorney — my eldest daughter — has prepared the papers for me and advised me that I may act pro se — as my own attorney — at the County Court House, where I must go to file the papers. As I take the escalator to the fifth floor of the Court House to deliver the official Name Change Petition to the Clerk of Documents, where I will be given an Official Number and a date for my day in court, I notice that I have unwittingly chosen the protective coloration for this milieu: a double-breasted, camel’s hair polo coat, belted in the back. It’s attorney attire.

But fading into the woodwork is not what I am about this snowy, mid-December morning. I’m here to affirm my identity by Getting My Name Back, the one I cheerfully relinquished in the pre-women’s-movement marriage game. By this time, I’ve been divorced for years, been threatened by a Catholic annulment, and am very much unmarried. Later, after I get my sea legs, I’ll stand up to the annulment process, which seems to threaten a wife-and-mother career — and maybe even me — but right now Getting My Name Back is the most affirming step I can take. It says: I’m still here. And I’m not going quietly.

Custom and tradition are with me on this. As the old Roman maxim says: Sine nomine homo non est: Without a name, man is nothing. Nor is woman. In some aboriginal cultures, names are changed to alter destiny. In fairy tales, there was magic in knowing Rumpelstiltskin’s name. Shakespeare’s "What’s in a name?" was a rhetorical question. A name is everything. Friends, hearing of my plan, have made a game of suggesting new names for me: Chastity is already taken, of course, but how about Laser Star, Celestial Moonbeam, or, better still, Aurora Borealis to reflect my northern Wisconsin roots? In the end, of course, I settle for the name given me by my parents at baptism. Baptism. A time for naming. Confirmation, too, and sometimes matrimony, though today’s young women — my daughters among them — often opt to keep their names when they marry. Can a legal name change, which must by law be, at the least, "not detrimental to the interests of any other person," rise to the solemnity of such sacred occasions?

The court date arrives. January 9. It happens to be the birthday of Elvis Presley, when Elvis fans eagerly await the latest sighting of the King. What a wonderfully symbolic day for me to come back to life; Elvis returns and so do I. Slightly apprehensive about my court appearance, I take along a friend for moral support. We slide into seats toward the front of the small courtroom. The Clerk of Court, who sits to the left of the spectators’ chairs, tells me that my case, Number 21 on the docket, will come up in about an hour. Thanks, however, to various no-shows and continuances, I quickly advance to Number 10. Still, I have time before I’m called to further reflect on the significance of the occasion.

Years ago, my divorce attorneys — both women — had persuaded me that women who reverted to their names upon divorce often irritated the judge. Maybe times have changed. My attorney daughter has advised, however, that it will be politic to state that the name change is simply "for professional reasons." Petitioners ahead of me ask for reasonable changes, reflecting new marriages, new stepfathers, adoptions. One young woman will become Destiny Dawn; otherwise the names are quite routine. Now that it’s almost my turn to face His Honor, I’m relieved that none of my irreverent friends, who’d threatened to appear wearing "Free At Last" T-shirts, have actually shown up to toss the (symbolic) wild rice and videotape the event. It might have prejudiced the Court.

When I’m called, it feels affirming to stand, hold up my right hand, place the other on the Bible, and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God. The questions are routine: name (!), date and place of birth, mother’s maiden name, father’s name, names of children (there are four of them), reason for change. In spite of my failure to address His Honor quite deferentially enough, for which I later kick myself, I pass muster, and my petition is granted. "It appears to the satisfaction of this Court that the desired change would be proper and not detrimental to the interests of any other person. It is hereby ordered that Petitioner’s name shall be changed from Patricia Cadigan Tucker to Patricia Bardon Cadigan."

I Have My Name Back. Could a rose by any other name smell quite as sweet? I doubt it.

Patricia Bardon Cadigan is a writer now living in Tucson.