To name a child is brave,
or foolhardy; even now it shakes me. Lauris Edmond
How many names and nicknames have you had? Have they stuck, do they still work for you? I had a baby nickname, a kid nickname, a couple nickname, and a wife nickname. I’m wondering whether they still hold some truths, some messages for me as I blunder towards the void. If I talk about these nicknames, maybe you’ll be thinking about your own…
But when I think about them, one inescapable truth astonishes me: all my names and nicknames were given to me by other people. None of my names or nicknames were actively chosen by me or even endorsed by me, except for adopting and keeping my husband’s surname, and even those were default decisions. A name plays a powerful part in building your identity, especially when the name-callers have strong opinions about the kind of person they believe or want you to be.
Who am I—a person who accepts and conforms with barely a twitch? Looking back, I think maybe so.
Baby Jigger jigs on forever
As a new baby I was Jigger, so-called by my big sister Jill, because I never stopped jigging and jumping. My mother pinned me into a sleeping bag and pinned the sleeping bag to the mattress of the pram, and still I jumped right out of the pram at the ripe old age of three weeks. Does Jigger still work as a nickname for me today at seventy-eight? Possibly, when I go prancing and even jumping around the dance floor. And possibly not, as I am lazy for much of the day.
Robin a-bobbin’—wistful hint of a former self
This nickname was discarded for Robin, and so I was Robin Taylor all through primary school. Why? The story goes that I could not be a Rachel, because a Rachel was mature, a grown-up woman. They said I was a tomboy, running wild, up trees and in creeks, grubby and fearless and happy outside. (All this is relative, of course—I had my partners in crime.) I was forever making huts up trees, under hedges or in the fowl house.
How does Robin work today for me? Robin Taylor is a delightful name, round and cheerful and honest, don’t you think? And the South Island robin is very cute and it hops around your feet as you walk through the forest stirring up insects—a wild bird that poses as tame for the sake of dinner. I love little Robin Taylor but I think of her as someone from my past.
I carried on making huts and homes in unsuitable places for much of my adult life, but today I look through windows at Wellington’s Green Belt from within the solid enclosure of an apartment. I do love a brisk walk to the top of a hill, but I prefer a strong roof that does not leak. Nobody would call me a tomboy today, although perhaps I have remnants of rebellion.
As a child I rejected the very idea of being a woman, I wasn’t having a bar of it, and when the symptoms appeared, I was wracked with horror. (Some years later I grew into my destiny as a woman, even embracing it with a certain glee.)
A dignified first name is imposed on an unsuitable child
My parents believed that I wasn’t dignified enough for a Rachel. When I was about to start secondary school, my godmother stepped in. “Why do you call her Robin? She has her own name, a fine name, and that’s what she should be called.” She, whose own name was Phyllis, won the battle. I was not consulted.
So I had to stop being my own self and become somebody else’s construct of me. The new me had her long blond plaits cut off, wore an ugly gym tunic, spent her days scuttling around a scary corridors full of tall strangers, and had to answer to a spiky new name.
What sort of a person was a Rachel? I was a grubby talky precocious little blonde kid and the only other Rachel in my entire world was a tall Plymouth Brethren girl at school, with a heavy black plait roping down her back: a quiet, calm, grown-up woman who was always clean and tidy. In other words, an alien. And this was to be my role model? Apparently Rachel meant a ewe lamb: luckily I could identify with that instead—running around sheep paddocks was normal behaviour. Baa!
So Rachel was my grown-up name: I had to grow into it. That’s odd, isn’t it? Usually a name grows around a child and the two become one. But Rachel still didn’t fit, apparently, because at university my future husband’s friends called me Tosh, while he called me Pud. Tosh was half of Mac ’n’ Tosh, and Pud was—perhaps my shape, perhaps my cooking? I quite enjoyed these marks of affection at the time. Do they still apply to me? Not on your Nelly.
To the rest of the world I have been Rachel McAlpine ever since.
Switching from patronymic to maritonymic
What? McAlpine? In 1959 a bride’s identity was swallowed by her husband’s: we took their surnames at the altar without blinking. When Grant and I got divorced twenty years later, I looked aghast at that custom. If only I had remained one of the Taylor girls, or renamed myself McTaylor, or Taypine, or Celia!
Too late. By D-day I had been McAlpine for more than half my life, and my four children were McAlpines, and my first three books of poems had been published—as an author I was already Rachel McAlpine. It all seemed far too complicated so I chose to keep my married name forever. I’ve put my mark on McAlpine: I’ve earned it. I know I’m Rachel McAlpine and I’ve grown to like the balance and pointiness of these two words.
Many years later, the role that I’m resisting is that of an old person who happens to be a woman. Another round of forcible growing up is in process. So maybe I need a new name for this phase; how about Griselda Old?