I’m just learning to navigate this world of blogs, but so far one of my favorite things is finding writing prompts. I’m finding lots of people writing about their mothers and grandmothers working outside the home. I could write about that, too, but it isn’t that exciting. Mom worked in retail when we first moved south and up through junior high. One grandmother was a nurse, the other a secretary. Exciting stuff. Eh, okay.
But my great grandmother was a character. She was my paternal grandfather’s mother. She was born Toni Barbara Sand, but apparently there was a boy named Tony in her class and she didn’t like that. So as soon as she was legally able, she changed her first name to Antonia. She went by Toni her whole life, but legally she was Antonia, and there were no boys named Antonia around.
The thing I find even more interesting about Toni, is that sometimes it was Tony. And at least once it was Toney. How can that be? My name is Elli, and I have spent my life correcting people. No, it’s not Ellie, or Elly, or for heaven’s sake not Eli. I correct people. I almost never just let it stand. If you write Elly, that’s not really my name. But Toni was very good at marking pictures with names, and she marked her own name in all three ways. Maybe it was different with her mood. Who knows.
Along those lines, I have a more observations about names. We all know how names were changed as folks came to this country from other lands. Names were changed to reflect a desire to assimilate in the country where they’re hoping to create a different life. They changed their names just to make it easier to spell, or to pronounce, or just to break ties with an old life. They changed their names to escape debt, or just to start over. Toni’s father was George, and he came from Alsace with his father, also George, and brothers, John and Michael. The ship’s manifest, however, shows Georg, and sons Georg, Jean, and Michael. I don’t know if they made conscious decisions to change the names, but I’ve never seen anything else of theirs spelled that way.
In census records I have found all sorts of discrepancies in spelling. Anyone who does genealogy research finds that frustration pretty quickly, especially as we use databases indexed by humans trying to read the handwriting of other (sometimes less educated) humans. Sometimes names are unrecognized. Sometimes they’re just off a little. Literacy rates are at play here, I’m sure. But so is our digitized world. If my name is spelled wrong, maybe they won’t be able to pull up my records at the doctor’s office. But if you couldn’t read, or even if you could, you probably didn’t correct the census taker. So, not only did folks change their names for all sorts of reasons, but their names existed in various forms. Spelling was fluid lots of times. Dynamic. How different from today.
Today it’s a huge decision for a woman to change her name when she gets married. Obviously, it wasn’t even a decision not so long ago. You get married, you take his name. It’s not that you had no choice, it was just that nobody gave it any thought. It was basically a given. But slowly over the years, some women didn’t change their names. More and more it was acceptable to NOT change your name. You can keep the name you were born with, spelled just like your parents spelled it when they filled out the paperwork in the hospital. What a novel thought. Now it’s a real decision. I took my husband’s name because it was right for me, and for him, but I have plenty of friends who made a different decision. It is just as valid a decision, but I am glad I won’t be doing genealogy research on them.
I think that plays on our thoughts of permanent identity, too. I have mixed feeling about that and maybe I’ll expound on that in a future entry.
I guess that’s all I have today. I started out wanting to tell you about my great grandmother and what a character she was. I got a bit off track, but she was a character. And a wonderful one. I’m lucky to have so many memories of her, as she lived to be 100 years old, passing away when I was 24. I can’t find it, but somewhere there is a picture of me with her. We are both touching our tongues to our noses.