Editor’s Note…I’m pleased to share another wonderful guest post written by my friend and fellow mom, Jacqueline Friedman Shepherd. She perfectly captures the feelings many of us experience when we face having to change our children’s names…an event none of us ever imagined needing to do, yet an important part of helping them bloom.
This is a story about a name. Two names, actually. But, at its heart, like all good stories this one is about people. But I didn’t know that as I sat in the courtroom that day. The judge was serious and, for a moment, I wondered if he was going to deny my request. He looked from the papers in front of him, back to me, then back to the papers. Finally, he cleared his throat and said, “I’ve read your request. This seems to be in the best interest of the child,” then turning to the court reporter he said, “In the matter of the minor child Lucille Ruby Jane, I grant a name change. She will henceforth be Moshe Louis Armstrong.”
When we found out that our second child was going to be a girl, I was ecstatic. I had been picking out names since I was a child. I had tattered copies of Beyond Jennifer and Jason that were highlighted, underline and dog-eared so much that you would think I was the mother of 42 children by the time I was sixteen. My boy names were classic and easy and my husband and I had effortlessly settled on Solomon for our first baby. Girl names, though, those were something else. I needed my daughter to be a wild-eyed gunslinger who never backed down from a challenge. Her name couldn’t be common, it had to be Mitzvah, Ramona or Penelope. I wanted it to make people pause for a second when they met her and think, “This girl might grow up to be the next President of the United States.”
Unfortunately, my husband had other dreams for our daughter. Apparently, he wanted her to be a stripper. The names he came up with (which I will not mention because I don’t want to offend anyone else who’s parents gave them a stripper name) were atrocious. Every name I came up with he shot down as “weird” and every name he came up with forced me to describe the unsightly fate of a girl named ______________.
I will spare you the boring details of how we finally settled on a name, but know that is took forever and it involved family trees, websites and begging. Miraculously, we settled on the name that we both agreed described the most kick-ass girl we could imagine: Lucille Ruby Jane. Lucille sounded good with Solomon and brought to mind Lucille Ball and Lucy from Charlie Brown; both pretty tough broads. Ruby was an old family name from my husband’s side and Ruby Jane together was a nod to my mother, Mary Jane. Jane was perhaps the most important of the three because it honored many aunts, grandmothers and friends named Jan and Jane – all who are exceptional women.
Our Lucille Ruby Jane lived up to her name. She was a mad beauty with thick, blonde hair, flushed cheeks and full, red lips. Her beauty was undeniable, but it was juxtaposed by her constant drool, her crusty nose and the fact that she could speak like a six year old by the time she was two. She refused to wear a shirt, loved hats and shoes and greeted everyone with a wet smile. She was exactly the wild child I had imagined…except for one thing.
The day before first grade started, I met with Lucy’s teacher. The first thing she said to me was, “Ruby Jane is the coolest name I’ve ever heard.” Ms. G was almost six feet tall with black spirals sprouting out of her head and a smile that made me think we’d drink whiskey together someday. I brought a collage of Lucy’s life with me as a visual aid to show her that I had birthed a “normal” child and that I had dressed her in pink and done all the right things. My mind flooded with visions of my loud baby girl who had become withdrawn and twitchy. I could picture the heartbreaking way that she walked with her head down, clenching and unclenching her fists nervously. I am rarely uncomfortable in social situations, but I could feel myself blushing as I stared at my hands and said, “Lucy thinks she is a boy. She looks like a boy. She’ll pee her pants before she’ll go in the girls’ bathroom. I just thought you should know.”
Without skipping a beat, Ms. G shrugged and said, “I’ll just take the signs off our classroom bathrooms. We don’t need one for boys and one for girls anyway.” I could have cried, but I’m not a crier. Ms. G sat back in her chair, relaxed and easy, and asked if I could give her any research or reading I had that would help her help Lucy. I wanted to jump up and hug her, but I’m not a hugger. So, I gathered my things and left with an indescribable hunch that things might end up okay.
The years between potty training and first grade had been awful ones in our house. The fact that Lucy started introducing herself as Ryan when she was three was the least of my worries. At four, she changed it to Amigo and insisted that we all call her that. By that point we had three children and I was horrified that people would think I had sons named Solomon, Abraham and Amigo, but Lucy threw two hour tantrums about the seam of her socks being crooked on her foot, so Amigo was fine with me. She had a boy haircut, wore her brother’s clothes and it was easier to let strangers think she was a boy than to introduce her as Lucy anyways.
So, it came as no great surprise when, halfway through first grade, Ms. G mentioned at conferences that Lucy was writing other names on the top of her papers. Judah. Max. Ladimir. She also mentioned that the other kids in the class called Lucy “he” and that she would be happy to do that, too, if it was okay with us. By that point I had done my research and found friends in the right places who had helped confirm that Lucy might very well grow up to be a boy (which is its own story and deserves its own essay, but this isn’t that story). It was time to find a new name.
As Solomon, Lucy/Ryan/Amigo and I sat down in front of the computer, I firmly stated that it had to be an Old Testament name. I suggested Malachai, Samson and Jonah. My children are nothing if not half their father and they immediately started pitching a case for Nimrod. Much like the first time around, we went back and forth forever until finally we had settled on Moshe (Hebrew for Moses – pronounced “Moe-shee.”). And for a middle name Moshe wanted Louis Armstrong.
Louis Armstrong? We weren’t big jazz fans. I wasn’t even sure how Moshe knew who he was. I bought him a kid’s biography and told him he had to read it first. It took a while, but finally one night he came out of his room, book in hand and said, “I’m done. And I want my name to be Louis Armstrong. He helped get rights for black people and he had a really hard life, but stayed positive and happy.” I couldn’t argue with that. Moshe Louis Armstrong.
I went into the school the next day to tell the school that Lucy was going to go by a new name. Everyone at the school had been so nice and understanding that, by this point my fear was gone. When I told Ms. G she threw back her head and laughed, “What a great name for a great kid! You guys are the best.” The new name seemed to free my wild, opinionated child from a mental cage and, almost overnight our lives became easier. Moshe’s friends switched names immediately and our entire family, though slightly slower, came along too. There were no more fits about socks. There was no more anxiety about heading to school each day. Who knew a name was such a big deal?
We moved last summer and decided that it was time to legally change Moshe’s name before third grade. I gathered all the legal paperwork. I had Ms. G and some family members write letters explaining that we weren’t insane and that the name change was in Lucy’s best interest. I was nervous that the judge would decide I was a terrible parent and deny the name change, but he didn’t and I left the courthouse that day feeling strangely victorious and sad at the same time. Lucille Ruby Jane no longer existed.
A few days later I sat having tea with my dear friend Marge. I told her how surprised I was at my sadness. Maybe it was because I had chosen a name that had all my hopes wrapped up in it? How had I ever been so naive and innocent as to think that I could dream up a child and it would turn out that way? Marge, who was infinitely wise, smiled at me and said, “None of our children turn out the way we hoped they would. If you’re doing it right, they turn out better.”
She was absolutely right. You never expect to have a three year old that will tell you she is really a boy, but isn’t that what I was hoping for? A daughter who would stand her ground and be herself no matter what? Moshe is the kind of kid that always does the right thing, has a wicked sense of humor and takes better care of his younger brother than I do. His friends are some of the best kids I’ve ever met, he compliments my Matzo ball soup and he wants to live in a treehouse with his parents when he grows up. He’s way cooler than the daughter I had hoped to have. Moshe Louis Armstrong is at least as kick ass as Lucille Ruby Jane would have been.
A couple of months ago, Moshe got a letter from Ms. G. In it was one of those paper fortunetellers that kids make. As each flap was lifted, Moshe read them aloud to us. The first one said, “I’m having a baby!” The second one said, “You are my favorite student EVER.” The third one said, “She is due on January 26th.”
And the fourth one said, “Her name is Ruby Jane.” I’m not a crier, but I may have teared up a little.