I don’t know who I am anymore. I think this as I lie in bed, too early for a Solstice night, a night I said I would be dancing naked around a bonfire but am not. Instead I am lying naked in bed at 8:15 p.m. with my son’s teddy bear, Schleppy, lying on top of me: a transitional object in reverse, given out of the love and anxiety of a too-fastly growing almost 9-year-old boy.
I have had many names, all of them from men who were not completely comfortable in their own identities, yet whose names I hotly took and claimed as my own: Scanlan. Nicholas. Flaherty. None fit me just right. None, when I put them on, made me look in the mirror and say, “I look good in this.” Actually, I liked the second one, but I was forced to donate it to Good Will when it got a bit too tight, when it finally became unseemly to continue to wrap myself in it once I met someone else.
The whole name business is like trying on jeans at the Gap: frustrating, sweaty, walk-out-and-leave-them-in-a-pile sort of irritating. Why does nothing fit, I wonder as I walk out, hair slightly staticky and frayed looking, perspiration on my neck, feeling frumpy and pissed off. Surely, somewhere there is a name that is mine.
I stand — or more precisely lie — at this lovely, liminal age of 48 unsure of what to say when I introduce myself. I have been married (this third time) for a dozen years. I took my husband’s name to simplify and unify our little family. It seemed, as they say, like a good idea at the time. But this past year I began using my maiden name more and more. Writing my first book, a memoir about my second marriage that ended with me being widowed, I vacillated about what to call myself. Was I my then-married name, Nicholas? Or was I my now-married name Flaherty? Or am I my maiden name, Ingram?
I chose the latter.
But even this causes me to question how that is anymore my name than the rest. It, too, came from a man, albeit a man who helped create me. That was followed by Scanlan, a name that hailed from Ireland but came to me in the form of an abusive, brown-skinned Polynesian who looked oh-so-beautiful but could offer little more than his own legacy of alcohol-induced rage, violence, and remorseful, drunken, obsequious apologies laced with passionate resentment. That marriage lasted nine months. The scars lasted some time longer than that. It took many years and a boatload of therapy to even be able to admit that I shared that name at all.
And there was marriage number two, the blue-blood dilettante, the kind, funny, wealthy, generous and deeply damaged soul who beguiled me with the strange and heady mixture of East Coast refinement, worldliness, wit and sensitivity. The pilot who looked like Andy Garcia but who could not find a way to be comfortable in his name or his skin. I wanted his name, Nicholas, wanted him, wanted us, but his life ended in an uncontrolled inverted spin seven months after we were married in that big beautiful wedding, leaving me his name but no identity.
Four years later there is the handsome, silver-haired 20-something opera singer. We meet in a production of “La Boheme.” He is Marcello, the starving, fiery artist. We marry. He legally changes his name from his father’s adoptive name, Stevens, to his mother’s maiden name, Flaherty. Our name is Flaherty. No one can pronounce it correctly, including our own children. (It’s “A” as in “apple”) My brother proclaims it the Worst Name Ever, asks me why I don’t keep Ingram or Nicholas. This serves only to piss me off.
I hug Schleppy to my chest, musing. I think about all these names — an inordinate number of names really. It was hell when we went into the bank to sign all the mortgage documents. A hundred pages to be signed and each page required that I sign as all of my prior incarnations. Katherine P. Ingram. Katherine Ingram Scanlan. Katherine Ingram Nicholas. Katherine Ingram Flaherty. Katherine Nicholas Flaherty. Katherine I Nicholas. You get the idea. I sigh out loud just thinking about how annoying and ridiculous it was, how much better and easier it would have been had I just kept my maiden name from the start. Why was I so eager to adopt these men’s names? I toss the sheet off, too warm, unable to sleep.
Maybe my book precipitated this identity crisis as I attempt to identify who my self is before I share that self so unflinchingly with the world. Maybe it’s not resonating so much with the man whose name I now share, the man who was Marcello but is, in real life, his total opposite: quiet and subdued; a man grappling with a mysterious illness, one that leaves him tired and withdrawn, barely able to manage the pain and incapacitation and leaves me alone with my thoughts.
The obvious arises: here, at 48, eleven months into what by all appearances, or lack thereof, seems to be the great transition into crone-dom, is another death. The death of youth and a certain self-image I scarcely knew I carried but quite clearly did. Maybe it is menopause that is provoking this this wondering, this desire to claim myself for myself, rather than being someone’s wife or daughter or mother for that matter.
I want a new name; this much I know. I could pick any name I want I suppose. I could make something up out of thin air, or choose something randomly: Kate de la O (just because I like it), or Kate Middleton (she’s not using it anymore), or I could go operatic, Kate Castronovo (poetic, dramatic, so Italian).
It makes sense, this wondering. As I muse, I hear an unseen entity whisper to me. “Write all this down,” the voice says. “Okay,” I reply out loud, get up, look for paper and pen, curse myself for not leaving them beside the bed, move quietly past my children’s room stopping long enough to listen for their sleeping breath, stumble downstairs, naked, searching for writing implements.
This is how I figure it out, how I’ve always, unconsciously tried to name myself into existence, by writing my way into understanding. I am dying. I am waiting to be reborn. And in the liminal, sacred space between being and becoming, here in my womb-bed, a lone lamp illuminating my words in the darkened summer night that encloses me, I embrace the constant wonder.
This time, I muse, I will name myself in a new way. This time it will be an internal force that leads me into a new incarnation, like the mysterious movement that propels all new life into the world, unbidden, unknowable. This time I will wait for the voice, the same one that told me to write this down now; the one who named my son before he was conceived, the one who called to me when I was eight and frightened after the unexpected death of my young father, called to me saying, “Kate...Kate...” but I was too scared to follow.
I realize, of course, that it doesn’t matter so much what I am called; what matters is that I am being called — by a force larger than my ego identity. I get this. And yet one’s name is a marker, a way belonging, of connecting with or distancing from family and roots. It doesn’t so much change who you are as reflect it. And maybe that’s why I am feeling nameless. Perhaps once I figure out who I am, I will find my name. Until then, I am, as Shakespeare, the originator of my naming called me, plain Kate.