A Boy Named Sue?February 18th, 2009 at 20:43
When Sally was pregnant for the first time, we made every effort not to find out the gender of the baby until after s/he was born. Following the Jewish tradition of Sally’s family, we decided to pick a first name with the first letter of the person no longer alive that we wanted to honor. In this circumstance we decided that that person would by my father, Eric Zale, who had died in 1984, just after Sally and I married and two years before Eric’s first grandchild would be born.
So again, not knowing the gender of the emergent human being in Sally’s belly, we wrestled with the possibility of a non-gender-specific first name beginning with the letter “E”, but no name jumped out as a good candidate. Failing in that, plan B was to come up with two names, one for a boy and one for a girl. After much thought and discussion, we decided on “Eric” (same as the deceased granddad) if the baby was a boy and “Emma” if it was a girl.
“Emma” was inspired by one historical and one fictional character by that name. The historical Emma was Emma Goldman, the feminist-anarchist from the early 20th Century who was a contributing character in the Warren Beatty’s great movie “Reds”. The fictional Emma was Emma Peale, the cool, classy and competent partner to fellow British secret agent John Steed of the 1960s – 1970s cult TV show “The Avengers”.
So we had the first name covered, but then what about the last name? The path of least resistance, followed even today by probably 99% of all new parents, would be to give this new soul my last name, “Zale”. Or we could follow the trendy maybe 1% and do some sort of hyphenated name – “Rosloff-Zale” or “Zale-Rosloff”.
From the start the radical/feminist/rebel in me was not happy with Zale as the last name. But making the case much stronger and more pragmatic, there were no Zale’s in my life, other than myself and my brother Peter. I had never met my dad’s parents or any of his seven brothers. There would be no Zale family for this new kid to connect to and I had no real sense of family connection myself with that name. Sally’s last name, Rosloff, was another matter entirely. There were any number of Rosloff aunts, uncles, and copious cousins that were out there and connected with us through various family weddings, birthdays, bat- and bar-mitzvahs, and other big family events.
So I suggested that we give this new person the “Rosloff” last name, and my partner Sally agreed. When our first was born, which turned out to be a boy, he was named Eric Roberts Rosloff (his middle name was my mom’s birth family name). Sally’s parents did not put forward any objections, but when we told my mom, the determined feminist-activist that she was, she expressed a very vehement objection. I still have her letter she wrote us in response. It started with the question, “Would you name your boy Sue?”
Our last name choice had pushed my mom’s buttons. In her child-affirming worldview and acknowledging the patriarchal context, pragmatically we were setting our son up for the loss of self-esteem for not having his father’s last name. After her own experience being demeaned by her own mother, how could we subject our son to even the slightest possibility of rejection to make a feminist statement?
Sally and I wrestled again with our first child’s name, but in the end agreed, that we were sticking with “Rosloff”. My mom raised no further objections, but in all the birthday, Christmas, and other holiday cards and gifts she sent him, from that day forward, she never once addressed the item to “Eric Roberts Rosloff”, but “Eric Roberts” instead.
His last name (and later his sister Emma’s as well) turned out to be a total non-issue in their lives. Los Angeles has so many blended families with multiple last names that as far as I am aware, nobody really noticed. Maybe some people assumed I was a step-dad rather than the biological father, I recall one or two instances of that. But neither of our kids ever took a self-esteem hit from their last name, which they continue to share with many loving aunts, uncles and cousins to this day.
Posted by Cooper Zale, in Context