I didn’t change my name when I got married. My stepfather-in-law, Wilkie, called me hard-headed. “You hard-headed, girl,” he said. His Southern sass reminds me of the boys who used to tease me in junior high. It dawned on me all at once, that the fathers of those boys, the same age as Wilkie, came up from the South, or their parents did, and brought not just an accent but an attitude. I relate to Wilkie the way I related to a boy named Gilbert who used to tease me every day in art class. I sass right back.
“You’re hard-headed yourself, man,” I say. He laughs that cackling laugh that makes me jump, nervous and happy. He’s such a know-it-all.
I told him once, “I met Toni Morrison.”
“You did?” he said. “What was he like?”
“He is a she. Do you know who Toni Morrison is?”
“No I don’t, no I don’t.” That laugh again.
His wife, my mother-in-law Shirley, knows. She’s a big reader. She reads everything, but she has read especially hard in black authors since she married Wilkie and moved to Louisiana.
She’s changed her name a lot. Shirley May Plum to Shirley May Izer to Shirley May Eaton to Shirley May Robinson. We gave our second daughter her middle name. Wilkie forgot this when he scolded us, “How come none of you kids gave any of your girls your mama’s name?”
“Eliza May, Papa, Eliza May,” my husband scolded back. He takes on a Southern accent whenever Wilkie’s around.
“That’s right, that’s right,” Wilkie said. And of course laughed.
When Eliza was born, I did change my name. I didn’t like being the only Knox in the family. It felt lonely. I decided I couldn’t solve the whole patriarchal naming problem on my own. And Eaton is a nice name. Social Security lets you change your name once for free, on the occasion of marriage or adoption. After that there’s a fee. (Shirley had to pay twice, I guess.) I remember signing the paperwork in a dingy little office, holding baby Eliza, four-year-old Lena getting antsy while we waited, and feeling a new warmth of family. I was an Eaton now, like both my girls. And of course, like my husband, but it felt more like I took their name.
When I applied for my current job, I was still Alice Knox. I changed my name a few weeks before my contract went into effect. Some of my early paperwork was made out under the name Alice Knox, and to this day I still get contracts addressed to Dr. Knox Eaton. Thank god there’s no hyphen. I couldn’t go that route. I understand those who do, but what about the next generation? How do you hyphenate two hyphenated names? I had friends in college who worried over this and named their dog Hyphen as a commentary on the whole problem.
Knox stays in the center of my five syllable name and surely in the center of my identity. I am such a Knox. Inescapable. I once met a woman my sister’s age, who grew up around the corner from us. We didn’t remember each other, but she remembered the Knoxes. Eggheads, she said. OK then. We do have a passel of graduate degrees among us. I can’t really argue with that.
But, I’ll close with my favorite picture in the world, which sums up (the less complicated, the lighter side of) being a Knox for me. Silly, playful, smart, irreverent. This is me and my brother Kerro in the summer of 1968. That’s our grandfather sitting behind us. That’s my brother’s and my relationship, right there. Being a Knox.
And becoming an Eaton.
Lena at 18 months with Shirley and Wilkie.