This explanation of my name change is an excerpt from a play
I’m developing that reflects on the lore of my family history:
My grandmother’s name was Bess, and my name was Bess. My parents put Elisabeth on my birth certificate partly to respect my father’s ancestors who believed if you name a baby after a living relative, the Angel of Death will get confused and take the wrong person. But the truth is that I was always and only called Bess, after my mother’s mother.
I come from a long legacy of mothers and daughters bound up in a spiritual kinship to one another, a legacy of women obsessed with each other.
At some point in school, kids started making fun of my name. A knee-jerk reaction from a vulnerable little girl, I opted for the more normal-sounding name on my birth certificate. I spent the last 20 years quietly regretting this, though not wanting to make a fuss and change my name yet again. From ages 10 to 30, I rarely corrected people when they called me something other than what I was going by at the time (an arbitrary rotation of Elisabeth, Liz, or Lizzy), because none of these names were really mine. I had a name, and for some reason that speaks to how life can interrupt our true selves, I just wasn’t using it.
When my grandmother died in 2022, my mother, normally a private mourner, couldn’t hide that she had lost a part of her soul. I understood the cavity because I also felt it - the tiny death of self that comes with the death of any woman in our lineage, it’s felt by all of us.
I grew up in the shadow of the death of my great-grandmother, a woman they called Mim. I was told by my grandmother my whole life that I looked like Mim, shared her mannerisms, shared her point of view, perhaps even the very core of her being. It’s a strange thing to be told as a little girl that you're probably your dead great-grandmother. That you’re a sequel to her existence, you're her soul recycled. I’ve always loved this about myself.
On a phone call months after my grandmother’s death, my mother and I had our obligatory check-in about how not OK we were both doing. Something in our shared grief compelled me to confess that changing my name had always haunted me. So the solution of returning to myself, returning to my grandmother, was obvious to both of us. After all, the Angel of Death had come, so the name was up for grabs. I mused that reclaiming the name would not only keep my grandmother alive, but elevate me to the next stage of really accepting that she's gone. But also she’s not, because I am my grandmother, and my great-grandmother, and my mother is them, and I am her, and all of them are us.
I ask for you to change my name in your phone, in your email contacts, in whatever amount of space I occupy in your mind, because, as it's always been, my name is Bess.