What’s in a name?

S, Old English fancy text

Now that I’m sixty-something, I’ve come to accept my name. But it has not been without angst over the decades. I’m told that my parents argued for three days over what to call me. Having finally settled on the unusual (for the early fifties) name of Sally, they decided that there was no need to choose a middle name. So I was Sally-no-middle-name-Kennedy.

This may have something to do with their own unusual middle names. Dad was Charles Maitland – the Maitland after the surname of a colleague of his father. At some stage, he discarded the Charles and was know to everyone by the homophone of that great Australian leveller – “mate”. Or in his case “Mait”. Many people were unaware of the spelling, so he became a sort of nameless entity even though his personality was larger than life.

Mum, on the other hand, always told us  that she was named after a house. A superficial bit of family research indicates that the name Hendelah – which she loathed – appears in older branches of the family before one of the Australian Waleys (sent to the colonies for fraternising with a shop girl) decide to use it as a title for their residence.  For my mother, already feeling she was  in the shadow of her talented older sister, it must have been an added blow that she bore the name of a house while her sister had their mother’s first name.

As a child, I was often asked if Sally was short for Sarah. It wasn’t. But recently a Catholic friend told me that she was warned against making friends with anyone called Sally as they were likely to be either Salvationists or Jews. I can claim some Jewish heritage, but buying a “War Cry” magazine from the Salvos at the pub was the closest anyone in our family came to the Salvation Army or any other religion.

Despite my parents’ satisfaction with the rarity of “Sally Kennedy”, the only other Sally at my all-girls school shared the same surname. She was far enough ahead of me to avoid confusion, but, in the days when the results of the Leaving Certificate were published in the papers for everyone to see, Dad did receive at least one congratulatory phone call while I was still in the early years of High school.

Like most teenagers, I played with my name as I forged my identity. Salli – with a daisy for the dot at the top of the i – seemed incredibly cool when I was fifteen. Fortunately, the i, and the daisy, soon disappeared. Years later, when a friend and I were talking about names for our children, she said she thought that Sally was a great name for a child but not for an adult. Would anyone ever take me seriously?

I didn’t think about keeping my family name when we got married. Sally Kennedy had been such a mouthful – easily contracted to “Salady” when I was nervous – that I was glad to move on to the simplicity of Sally James. Until I realised how common it is. From yoga teachers to dentists, my records have been confused with those of someone else. The worst was when someone in a similar profession started publishing recipes. I was frequently told that friends and neighbours had cooked “my” recipe the previous evening. Sometimes I told them the truth, but it was often easier to accept the accolades. I started using the middle initial of my previous family name to make the distinction.

When it came to naming our daughter, we settled on Helen. Helen James. Easy to remember, unlikely to be shortened. But in the eighties, most of the Helens were my age and most of the Sallys were hers, so we were frequently called by the other’s name.  As a parent, you soon disappear, becoming  “Helen’s Mum”, so being Helen herself didn’t really matter in the scheme of things.

Now I’m content with “Sally James”. It fits me like a pair of worn slippers or an old jumper. I reflect on the periods when I hated my name, and in comparison with the other ups and downs of life, it’s a pretty minor irritation. But every so often I wonder how different my life would have been if I had been named Scarlet, or Sabrina, or even Isadora. But I’m very grateful  I wasn’t Hendelah.

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