Sometimes people ask me why I kept my first husband’s name when I married the second time. There were a number of reasons, some logical, some not, and one that was emotional, if not illogical.
Still feeling guilty about divorcing, I wanted desperately to keep a connection to my grown daughters. So I (illogically) thought sharing a last name would be one way to do that. It was illogical because, before long, they both married and took their husbands’ names. This was before Facebook, where many women—my daughters too—include their maiden names in their profiles. Thus, there’s a connection again.
Another reason I kept the name was purely personal, and some might say prejudicial. My maiden name was Wolfson, and I had it until I married for the first time in 1963. Wolfson is one of those names that doesn’t suggest ethnicity…unless you know someone by that name. I learned much later in life that Wolfson wasn’t always the family name. The story that surfaced at a cousins’ club meeting was that the name was originally (when?) Melamed. Melamed to Wolfson? The sketchy story continues that an early immigrant to America, who was—allegedly—the son of someone named Wolf—changed the name.
My father embraced the story. My mother was skeptical. She’d known my father since the mid-1930s and, since she was motherless at the time, she became a very solid member of the Wolfson family. “How come I never heard this story?” was her mantra. I was curious about it, but by that time I was solidly a Feingold, so it was just an interesting anecdote. But Wolfson is what we went by, and it was a good name for me, except that I always sat near the end of the last row in alphabetically arranged classrooms. Even all the W names came before mine: Weinberg, Weinstein, Weissman…
In 1963, when I became a Feingold, I was aware that I now had a more obviously ethnic (Jewish) name. This was not a problem in the 60s in the U.S. But still, I knew that some people would make assumptions about me just by my last name. I was concerned about it before a trip to Malaysia after reading that a traveler could have a problem if she had an Israeli stamp on her passport. I’d never been to Israel, but I was a Jew with a Jewish last name. Could that be a problem too? (It wasn’t.)
Then came divorce and, later, remarriage. This time I was marrying a Thompson. I could shed my very Jewish last name for…a very white bread Waspy name like Thompson. I thought about this for a while and had this feeling of discomfort and guilt (there’s that word again) about “hiding” my ethnicity behind such an obviously non-Jewish name. Besides, there were no-relation Thompsons everywhere! I would be one of a very large crowd.
So I remained a Feingold. And the official reason I give for this choice may be the strongest reason: Think of all the name-changing bureaucracy one has to go through when one wants to change one’s name at 53! By that age, you have credit cards, bank accounts, health insurance, possibly a will, maybe even a library card. You have to notify Social Security. You need to make sure your HR department at work changes your records. And if you work with repeat customers and sponsors, you have to include your old name with the new one so they know you’re still who you used to be. So, like many things I consider doing and reject these days, I declared that it was “too much trouble.”
If my wonderful husband had not been comfortable with my decision, I would have overcome my guilt, laziness, and tendency to overthink and made the change. He was just happy we got married. Me too.