I remember picking up Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” soon after it was published (but long enough that it was on the shelf in the library, because while I am always fiercely pulled to a story about a strong female character overcoming, I can still wait to check it out).
It was an entertaining book, in the way that memoirs have always entertained me: captivating story of a person with an interesting journey, a turning point, a trauma.
Back then, it resonated with me, but superficially. At that point I was a young farm wife in rural Iowa. No particularly interesting journey. No turning points. Trauma-less.
However, I remembered one scene vividly. So much so that I did that annoying thing book lovers do, and I read a passage aloud to my husband while we were laying in bed one night.
The scene involved the moment when the protagonist was divorcing her husband. They divorced after Cheryl went through tremendous trauma and couldn’t recover. Everything was broken. The divorce was portrayed as painful but necessary.
As Cheryl and her then-husband signed the divorce papers together, the clerk told her she could choose whatever name she wanted. I was discovering this fact along with the character — who knew?
“To begin to understand something about Cheryl Strayed, know that Strayed is not her given name. We never find out the name she was born with, but we are made to understand with absolute clarity why she chose to change it, and just how well her new name suits her. Contemplating divorce, she realized that she couldn’t continue to use the hyphenated married name she’d shared with her husband, ‘nor could I go back to having the name I had had in high school and be the girl I used to be. . . . I pondered the question of my last name, mentally scanning words that sounded good with Cheryl. . . . Nothing fit until one day when the word strayed came into my mind. Immediately I looked it up in the dictionary and knew it was mine. Its layered definitions spoke directly to my life and also struck a poetic chord: to wander from the proper path, to deviate from the direct course, to be lost, to become wild, to be without a mother or father, to be without a home, to move about aimlessly in search of something, to diverge or digress. I had diverged, digressed, wandered and become wild. . . . I saw the power of the darkness. Saw that, in fact, I had strayed and that I was a stray and that from the wild places my straying had brought me, I knew things I couldn’t have known before.'”
I would have typed this scene word for word out of my copy of “Wild”, but after reading it again in the months of my separation and relocation, I sent it back to my former husband on his birthday, with underlined sections and asterisks and lists of things that were on my mind during this time.
I asked him to read it in 2013. He never did. I still don’t know if he ever did.
But I do know he remembered that passage above. How? Because he asked me about it.
The day before Thanksgiving, 2016:
“The lawyer is drawing up our dissolution paperwork. He needs to know what your last name is going to be. It’s more efficient that way.”
“Do you know what your name is going to be?”
“Remember that book?”
I experienced a very similar experience to what Cheryl describes. I knew I couldn’t go back to my maiden name. Entertaining that thought made me feel like the time my Dad sent me to kindergarten with my dress on backwards: technically it fit, but it was uncomfortable; it didn’t line up. I wasn’t that girl anymore.
And I knew I couldn’t endure the pain of keeping my married name. I loved the music of my married name, but that song had ended.
My chosen last name came to me pretty easily. And there was never any other choice. I was outside walking my dogs and I thought about what had shaped me. And who I wanted to be.
Because, if you know me (or if you don’t know me, you can probably surmise), I love words. I love everything about language. And I believe in its power.
So I chose Fillmore.
And for those of you who have been asking, here’s why:
- My parents live in Fillmore County, which is the longest place they have settled in their almost 45-year marriage. It feels like home. And I needed something that felt like home.
- I graduated from Fillmore Central High School. For most people, having your last name influenced by your high school sounds preposterous, but those people welcomed me into their family when they didn’t have to, when the school just down the road had rejected me so thoroughly. I felt like I belonged there. And I needed to feel that something belonged to me. I am returning for my 10 year reunion in a few days, and I know I will feel restored.
- The etymology of the word Fillmore means, “well-known”. As I started my next chapter motivated by career choice, and with my work being the primary definer of my identity, I needed a name that was going to inspire me to achieve.
- It’s not as musical as it was, but it’s still good.
Additionally, I changed my middle name. Now, my middle name consists of merely three initials: one for my given middle name, one for my maiden name and one for my married name. Now, my first, middle and last name represent my past, present and future. Every time I recite my name, I recite my story. And I get a little stronger.
I still have not legally changed my name, so for now I straddle two identities. I know I need to carve out time to do this excruciating task. Another day.
People always assume that “Fillmore” is my maiden name, and I always tell this whole story to them too. Because I think it’s a good story, but I also want people to know that, in another haunting line from “Wild” — “You are in the driver’s seat of your own life.” If you are in the position to change your name, I encourage you to give it a lot of thought. I want you to be true to yourself. I want you to know you do not have to go back to your maiden name. Know that you do not have to take your husband or wife’s name.
Because your name is the song you sing every day about who you are. It’s so intimately yours. You have permission to choose how it sounds.