What's in a Name? Derek Alger From the Editor

perm_identity What’s in a Name?

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 176 ~ January, 2012

I’ve always been happy with my name, which is good, because I’ve been so insecure about so many other things in my life.  I owe a lot to my mother for successfully winning the battle against my father and his parents, all three who wanted to name me after my grandfather, my father’s father.  My father was stuck with his father’s name as a middle name, but fortunately, that name is nowhere on any document to do with me, most importantly, my birth certificate.

My grandfather’s name was Ewart.  It is beyond my comprehension how of all the names to choose from, parents could come up with such a name for a little baby boy, but, I suppose, times were what they were just prior to the Twentieth Century.

What I found more peculiar was the name my great grandparents gave Ewart’s younger brother.  Stewart.  There they were, Ewart and Stewart, the Alger boys.

When it became clear to my father that he was never going to have a Ewart as a son, he switched to a tactic of mischievous cruelty, although I’m not sure he saw it as such, and I’m not even sure how serious he was, but he mentioned it several times during my childhood, so at the minimum, he thought it was rather clever.  My father thought perhaps I should be named Horatio.  We were not related to Horatio Alger, the author of numerous “rags to riches” books, but folks used to always ask if we were.  That’s when my father, out of annoyance, or oneupmanship, or whatever, thought it would be funny to name me Horatio, so when asked if he was related, he could answer with a straight face, “Yes, I’m his father.”

My mother to the rescue again, and somehow I ended up with the name I did, which I like, feeling comfortable with the symmetry of five letters in both my first name and my surname.  I’m not sure if my parents were conscious of it, but I’m the oldest of four and the only kid whose name doesn’t end in the letter “y.”  My three siblings are Wendy, Timmy, and Penny.  No “y” for me, which is just as well, I’ve never fit in smoothly with any group, though I can’t say for sure whether it’s because of respective groups, or myself, or a combination of both.

My brother’s middle name is Cannon, which is my mother’s maiden name.  I’m sure that didn’t sit well with my father’s parents, but they were up in Canada when my brother was born in New York City, and my mothers’ parents came down from Toronto to help out, taking care of Wendy and me.

I can’t relate to it, but my three siblings believe we inherited an “evil” Alger gene.  What that means, or what that gene is, I haven’t a clue, but I think, my siblings believe it has to do with paranoia and feelings of overwhelming guilt when confronting anyone or anything in the outside world.  I do know my brother always considered himself more a Cannon than an Alger, though I’m not sure what that means specifically in terms of thinking or feelings about oneself.  When my father died, my brother looked into how to go about changing his name from Alger to Cannon.  His loyalty to my mother, who died before my father, was unquestionable and devout, whereas he thought my father’s name, based on subsequent cruel and irrational actions, such as disowning his four children —  myself and the three kids whose names ended in “y” — was unforgivable, just as it was incomprehensible, given what my mother wanted, though apparently her wishes didn’t matter once she was gone.

My brother’s disgust with bureaucracy was probably equal to that which he felt toward my father because he still has the same last name.  It doesn’t really matter, I think he concluded that whatever his surname was, he would still be destined to fight off the influences of the “evil” Alger gene for the rest of his days.

My two sisters took different paths when they each got married in terms of which surname to use.  Wendy, who is a year younger than me, kept the last name Alger instead of taking her husband’s last name, while my sister, Penny, is now, technically, no longer an Alger, having the same name as her husband, though I don’t think she yet feels free of the “evil” Alger gene.

Wendy’s children, at an early age, became embroiled in the issue of last names.  I’ve been fortunate that any attempt to saddle me with a nickname has failed, and everywhere I’ve ever found myself, I’ve simply been me, addressed by my given name.  Unfortunately, Wendy’s husband’s last name was Hucker.  I’m sure the situation would have been different if he hadn’t died when his children, my niece and nephew, were nine and three, respectively, but my niece was determined to go by the last name Alger, though I don’t think she had any awareness of a potential “evil” gene associated with it.  No, actually, she was afraid of the name calling and what the last name Hucker could be rhymed with, not recognizing that such rhyming efforts have more to do with the individual than the name, at least in terms of staying power.  Regardless, I have a niece who’s an Alger, and she has a younger brother who’s a Hucker, and as far as I know, my nephew has never encountered any difficulty with his last name.

I remember another moment in the family name game, which never made much sense to me.  I was flying into Pearson International Airport in Toronto to go up to the family summer cottage on a lake about two hours away and my brother was picking me up to drive me there.  I think he was thirty or so at the time and going to graduate school in Ontario at Guelph University.

I passed through Customs, waited for my suitcase to spill out on the revolving oval baggage pickup, and then slipped through the sliding frosted glass door, immediately spotting my brother waiting.

“Hey. Tim,” I said.

My brother cleared his throat.

“That’s not my name.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“My name’s T.C.,” he said.

I could have said “What?” but chose not to say anything, though I did notice the initials T.C. were emblazoned in small white letters on the left breast of his blue tee shirt.

The explanation, or rationalization, or insanity, depending on perspective, came out during the drive up to the cottage, as I suspected it would.  We all, all four of us children, had difficulty dealing with my father, feeling we were being overwhelmed with excess criticism over just about anything we did, though my father’s intentions were meant to be helpful, they, unfortunately, had the reverse affect.  As a result, we all developed different strategies and mechanisms for handling impaired inner belief systems, where, consciously or not, none of us believed we could do much right.  I don’t know why, and probably never will, but my brother and youngest sister were much more inclined to seek out my father’s approval, which, of course, was a goal that could never be outwardly achieved.

It was out of this backdrop that the name T.C. arrived.  My brother was seeing a therapist, who apparently thought Timmy was a “baby name” and thus, impacted adversely on my brother’s feelings about himself, and his ability to ever assertively confront my father.  So, I suppose, with the therapist’s approval, my brother renamed himself T.C.  I don’t remember anything changing, except I never ever called him T.C., and somehow I felt strange, thought it was ingenuous, when other members of the family referred to him as such.  It was weird at Thanksgiving dinner, when my father, sitting at his usual spot at the head of the table, would say, “And, T.C., would you like dark meat or white?”

Maybe it truly was an identity crisis, or an attempt to escape from unpleasantries from the past.  My brother went to high school in New Jersey, but graduated from University in Toronto, and continued on to graduate school in Ontario.  His friends in Canada all knew him as T.C., and T.C., he was, until he moved back to New Jersey, and then sometimes he was T.C., and sometimes, Tim, and then more and more was Tim, and now he is back to being Tim full-time, yet I have no idea what happened to all the tee shirts with T.C. emblazoned across the left breast.

I don’t know why I’m going on about any of this, no great need is compelling me to do so, it simply is what it is.  But one thing I am absolutely sure about, I have written the above without any influence of an evil gene, “Alger” or otherwise, forcing me to complete this essay, for lack of a better word, on what’s in a name.

  • Charles Salzberg

    Wonderful essay, Derek.  And coincidentally, I gave a group of students the in-class assignment of writing about their own name and the results ranged from touching to hilarious.

  • Kirsten Clodfelter

    Great thoughts here, Derek. And I’m certainly glad that you are a Derek and not an Ewart. : )

  • I agree with Kirsten – great thoughts.  Though I think it would have been pretty damn cool if your father had gone with Horatio 🙂

  • Duff Brenna

    Thanks to your mom, you lucked out, Derek. Parents should always think about the baby becoming the adult carrying the light or heavy weight of his/her name. I know a little boy named Craven. When I hear his name I always think of the song from HIGH NOON, the lyrics … or lie a coward, a craven coward, in my grave … I also know a little boy named Slade. Maybe Slade is a cool name, but hearing it always makes me wince. Don’t know why.

  • Jennifer Piovanetti

    I have perhaps, no, not perhaps, factually, the most common first name of my generation, and my maiden name was not too uncommon either. I was eagerly anticipating changing my name to my husband’s rather unusual last name (by last count there are 12 people in the US with this last name) just to get some sense of individuality. I always longed for a unique and interesting name. While Ewart or Horatio would certainly qualify as unique, I’m glad you’re a Derek, and that you are the Derek that you are.