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Tuesday
Jun012004

Goin' to Take a Hyphenated Journey

[National Review Online, June 1, 2004]

As the hubby and I approach our 30th anniversary, our youngest is approaching his wedding day. Stephen’s older brother David and sister Megan preceded him into wedded bliss, and have already built up our stock of grandchildren to the number of five; no doubt these newest newlyweds will supplement in time.

But none of our grandchildren will bear our name. Like David and Megan before him, Steve will take this opportunity to change his last name. So long, hyphen-Green.

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The time was 1972, and I was on my first date with a guy named Gary Mathewes. “The woman’s liberation movement is very important to me,” I announced, in my best mess-with-me-and-I’ll-knock-you-down-Bub voice.

“Me too,” he said, to my surprise. We sat idling at a stoplight in his puttering green VW. “In fact,” he went on, “I always thought that if I ever got married, I’d want my wife and I to hyphenate our names. Both of us, I mean.”

Wow, I thought, he just might be the one. We discussed the various surname permutations then becoming popular. Woman hyphenates, but not the man—nah, if marriage is about unity, you ought to have the same name. Besides, it’s still sexist, conjuring an image of the husband relaxing with pipe and slippers, identity intact, while the little lady is in the basement patching together a name with a soldering iron and electric drill. Isn’t it nice she has a hobby?

Should we invent a whole new surname, like “Sunshine” or “Freedom”? Too hokey, and even then ominously freighted with promise of future cringing. Should everyone—husband, kids, dog—adopt the wife’s surname as a middle name? Given the limited use of a middle name, it looked too much like a consolation prize. No, mutual hyphenation was the ticket.

Two years later we stood in the woods grooving on a classic hippie wedding, right down to my unbleached muslin dress and the vegetarian reception under the trees. Soon after we hiked down to City Hall to have our names legally changed: both of us would henceforth be Mathewes-Greens. We didn’t know that the usual custom is for the woman’s name to go first; we chose billing solely for euphony. “Green-Mathewes” sounded clunky, and besides, we joked, we wanted to have kids. Don’t you know that old song, “God Didn’t Make Little Green Mathewes”?

It didn’t work out. Oh, the marriage did; thirty years later, Gary is my sweetheart more than ever. We have been blessed in more ways than we can count. But the name didn’t turn out to be such a great idea.

In the early years it was fun to be unique. Were we the only Mathewes-Greens in the world? Only two of us—then three, four, and five. Were we founding a dynasty?

But no dynastic ruler had to cope with filing clerks who are bewildered by a hyphenated name. Banks, doctors, and grad school admissions offices phoned to complain that “We can’t complete your form because your file is incomplete.” Yes, we learned to say, that file you’re holding in your hand—is it labeled “Mathewes”?— is probably incomplete. So is the other one, the one still in the drawer, labeled “Green.” Try putting them together.

Then rebellion began to occur within the ranks. In the first grade, Megan Mathewes-Green was still laboriously heading her paper when her friend Ann Black had moved on to question three. One night she announced, as my heart sank, “I can’t wait till I get married and I can take my husband’s name.” Little brother David agreed: “And I’m going to take my wife’s name.” Stephen, the smallest, said judiciously, “I’m going to let my wife decide what name we should have.”

Well, maybe they should be free to decide; after all, our parents let us decide. That’s what we told friends who teased us with questions like, What if your child wants to marry someone with a hyphenated name? We waved the question away; it sounded like a monkeys-with-typewriters impossibility. But in college, when Megan was dating a friend with a hyphenated name, we had to admit that parental whimsy had handed them a pretty complicated premise.

We didn’t glimpse what monkeys with typewriters can actually do until computers became ubiquitous. Something about a hyphen makes a computer kick up its heels, and before you know it a name that originally sounded culture-defying and valiant has turned into something just silly.

The postman brings me mail for people named Mathwas-Green, Mathers-Crein, Vatherwes-Green, Mebhews-Creen , Morthewes-Aeer, Green-Mathwews and Athewes-Green. If I wanted to begin a life of crime, I would have plenty of aliases. At least these variations still retain the hyphen intact; sometimes it turns into an asterisk or apostrophe, or vanishes altogether. Sometimes it migrates forward as if prowling for an escape, as in “Frederica-Mathewes Green.” (I had repeatedly told the voice on the phone, “Yes, it is a hyphenated name, it has a hyphen.” Guess I didn’t specify where). It can be collapsed into a singleton, Greenathewes, or bloom into multiply punctuated corporate grandeur, as when a law firm addressed me as Frederica, Mathewes & Green. I waved the envelope at my husband: “Out of the way, I’m eating for three!”

Of course, we have first and middle names too, which add to the fun as automated mailing lists get shuffled back and forth. “Frederica” is already a challenge, and it comes back to me as Frederra, Fredrique, or Fredreckica, with an extra kick. My middle name I don’t even want to talk about, but suffice it to say that it’s French and has a hyphen of its own. I’m the only person I know with two hyphens. I suppress it the way a nuclear scientist guards plutonium, and at most a loose “S” appears in the mailbag permutations.

My husband’s name is relatively simple, but he does go by his middle name, Gary, and ignores the first one, Robert. That shouldn’t be so hard, and when mail is addressed to Ro Bert Gray it’s just plain carelessness. (Is this getting too easy to follow? Then add that he’s a pastor, so the title “Rev.” has begun showing up as a throat-clearing first name, “Rrend.” As an Eastern Orthodox priest he’s also called by a saint’s name, “Father Gregory.” He picks up extra names like a black cassock picks up cat hairs.)

The unused “Robert” has the advantage of instantly disclosing telemarketers who want to speak to “Bob,” but the disadvantage when it comes to computer programs designed to doggedly seek out and line up first name, middle name, last name. As data oozes from one master list to another, wrong entries are reentered with even more bloopers, last names become first, and in the final stages of mutation, fragments of our first and middle names get mixed up with each other’s. We enjoy a nominative unity beyond any imagined in wedding vows: Mathewes F. S. Green, Green Gary R. Mathewes, Robert Gary S. Green.

Sometimes the name stutters on, unable to stop itself: Frederica S. Mathewes-Green Garry Garry (cha cha cha). Sometimes it truncates: Frederica Ma Green, Green R. Mathewes (the letter began, “Dear Green”). Sometimes it balks completely: Robert Gary, no surname at all. I picture the data entry person just staring at the name that had come his way and tossing the whole mess. One letter was addressed solely to “R.”

Most of these mutations are merely annoying or amusing, but on two occasions I found it kind of eerie. Once was when my photo appeared in a local paper over the caption “Mathewes-Smith.” It was as if a shadow version were running around having a separate life, just beyond my control. Sure looked like me.

The second time was when we received a form letter addressed to “Mr. Bob Gree, Sr.” That’s a hybrid as reasonable as any other, linking a diminutive of my husband’s never-used first name with a fragment of my original surname, conjuring a fictional person out of the tinker-toys we had supplied. But it was the “Sr.” that threw me. As far as I know, I’ve never given birth to a Bob Gree, Jr. I have a creepy feeling that, if I check my wallet photos, there will be one of a little boy, freckles and glasses, whom I’ve never seen before.

So, from an all-time world-wide high of five Mathewes-Greens, we are again down to two; some day it will be one, and then none. The name we made up won’t last. The thing that will last is the marriage we made—the example of two kids who married young (I was only 21) and started having babies right away, and raised kids who wanted to marry young and start having babies right away. In a world so full of dismal relationships, abandonment and shallow affairs, something made our kids think that a healthy, joyous marriage was a desirable thing—and an achievable thing. If that confidence goes on reverberating down future generations, it won’t matter if our name is forgotten.

The hyphenated name wasn’t a noble experiment, it was just a sign of the times, good for a few laughs, a few scrapbook pages of mangled address labels. It wasn’t the important thing. So if you’re planning a wedding right now my advice is: don’t plan a wedding. Plan a marriage instead. Make it wonderful, and when it isn’t wonderful, make it last.

And no matter how romantic it sounds, a hyphenated name will only give you headaches. Oh, what a tangled web we create, when first we practice to hyphenate.

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