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By Jane Patten
The only time I recall being truly grateful for my name was right before I started first grade when my mom showed me how to write it. “See, here it is. Just four letters,” she said, “J-a-n-e.” Already a worrier, I sighed with relief. I could do this. Jane was such a short name.
“Will you write my middle name?” I asked Mom. I studied the nine letters she had written. Elizabeth. Though I loved my middle name, I was so relieved that I would not be expected to write it. If I had had to learn how to spell it, I knew I would have been doomed by the first week of school.
But of course, I eventually learned how to spell Elizabeth, and I also learned to resent my name, Jane, and by association, my mother. You see, like many mothers of the ‘50s, my mom had named me after herself. She, too, was named for her mother. Though I loved and admired both my mom and grandmother, whom I saw frequently, I wished that my name had been something unique, something all mine. Although I was frequently called Janie to distinguish from the other two Janes, I also found that being the third Jane could get confusing. “Jane the First, the Second, and the Turd,” my father would joke. He’d always get a laugh. Except from me.
In our small house, the one telephone hung on the wall in our kitchen where its bright yellow color could scream its dominance in our lives and its long cord could stretch all the way into the living room. In other words, there was no privacy, because my family was always either in the kitchen or in the living room. Privacy had suddenly become a thing of value because I was starting to get calls of my own from friends, and more importantly, a boy.
One afternoon, my mom answered the phone and after a few minutes she said, “Oh, you want to speak to my daughter.”
Handing me the phone, she whispered, “That’s the first time in years a boy told me he liked me.”
I could have died from embarrassment. Thinking back, I’m sure the poor boy could have done the same.
My parents then began answering the phone by asking, “Which Jane do you want? Big Jane or Little Jane?” This was no better. At twelve, I was as tall as my mother and outweighed her by 15 pounds. I was the big Jane.
“But I wouldn’t like Old Jane or Young Jane,” my mother said when I complained.
That summer, my dad’s grandparents, my great-grandparents, who lived four states away in Connecticut invited me to spend a week with them. This was the first time I would ever visit them without the rest of my family. We saw them twice a year, and they sent gifts for every occasion. I knew them, of course, but they were more of the backdrop than the center stage in the drama of our little rural family. I couldn’t wait for a whole week away from my family, particularly my mother, who infuriated me more and more as the phone calls for me became more numerous. This whole Jane business was her doing.
My great-grandparents’ duplex, just five minutes from downtown Hartford, contrasted sharply from my home in Delaware, and indeed, I did feel a bit like the country mouse visiting the city. My great-grandmother decorated in polished maple wood, real cloth table coverings, and lush red towels in the bathroom. Unlike my home there were no formica tabletops and melamine dishware—fine grained wood and colorful china predominated. The telephone, black and distinguished, sat sedately on a small wood table over a starched white doily. Even its ring was a soft muted buzz unlike our phone which emitted two sharp clangs announcing that the call was for us and not the neighbor on our party line.
The only contrast with these formal surroundings was my great-grandmother herself. She hovered over me as I ate breakfast or lunch, talking loudly and incessantly, about one family member or another who had wronged or upset her. She’d stop long enough to stir something on the stove and to discreetly take a sip of whiskey in a glass hidden behind the house plant. Then she’d return to her liturgy, getting angrier and angrier with the memory of family members I had never met. This much I learned: I didn’t want to be on this woman’s bad side, so I nodded sympathetically or interjected, “That’s terrible,” every so often just to let her know I was on her side.
The evenings were comfortable. My great-grandfather joined us in the living room where we discussed books and ideas. He liked astronomy and showed me how to find the North Star by way of the Big Dipper; she liked astrology and told me that I was a true Pisces—a starry-eyed dreamer, idealistic, and intensely loyal. They asked me questions. They wanted to know my ideas. What a difference from my everyday life.
One evening, as we were talking, my great-grandmother nudged my great-grandfather. “Ask her,” she whispered.
“Jane, dear,” my great-grandfather began, “we’ve been thinking... would you mind if we called you Elizabeth? It’s such a lovely name.”
Mind? I was thrilled. And so, it began. For two days, it was, “Elizabeth, what do you think? Elizabeth, what are your ideas?” I enjoyed thinking ahead to school starting in a few weeks. I’d be in a new grade. I’d write Elizabeth on my papers. I’d tell my friends I would no longer be called Jane—or Janie, the diminutive counterpart.
The next evening began the same until my great-grandmother said, “I’m so glad you want to be called Elizabeth.”
She continued, “We think it was so selfish of your mother to insist on naming you after herself.”
My great-grandfather nodded in agreement, while she continued, “Naming you Jane just showed us how lacking in imagination and creativity she really is. She was determined to pass down that plain name from her side of the family without a bit of thought for you. That’s just the kind of family she came from—rather dull overall.
I felt my body stiffen. She was talking about my mother. Elizabeth was not about me at all. It was about using me to hurt my mother for some imagined offense. I did not think ahead in that moment that someday I would be the only Jane left, and that this name would be mine alone. I did not consider that while I would always be a bit ungrateful that I wasn’t given another name, that I’d be extremely grateful for so many of the other legacies the Janes in my family passed down to me. What I did know in that moment, though, was that I was proud to be my mother’s daughter. So, when my great-grandmother finished her tirade and said, “Don’t you agree, Elizabeth?” I answered, “You can call me Jane.”
After retiring and moving to Huntsville, Jane Patten decided to write about her adventures, including growing up in Delaware and her career as a teacher in rural Georgia. Her writings have been published in Out Loud HSV: A Year in Review anthologies, The New Verse News, and Reckon.