Honoring heritage, by any name

Feb 17, 2014 by

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Names matter. They mark us as shaped by particular people who chose them or carried them down.

Kennel-Shank

Kennel-Shank

A colleague who recently became engaged asked my thoughts about last names. I’ve received such questions for as long as I can remember. Sometimes the asker notes my hyphenated last name, which is on my birth certificate, as a reason for being curious about my thoughts.

In starting a new family and household, it’s worth considering carefully how to best honor each person’s heritage and shared values. It’s a way to be thoughtful believers and to learn from members of our faith communities.

Indeed, I’ve known many Mennonite couples, among others, who have pondered the question of last names, even if they settled on a tradition from one or both of their cultures. (One of my first articles for MWR was on that topic, including different naming conventions, such as the Ethiopian practice of children taking their father’s first name as a last name, and women keeping that name, so families do not share one name.)

Because of conversations with peers and members of older generations, including people like me who had seen how the name choice held up over time, I had a good sense of the trade-offs in the options.

Like with any multiple-choice test, I began with a process of elimination. First to go was adding another hyphen. I’ve seen one triple-hyphenate, and it only worked because her names were so short (Purim-Shem-Tov).

Options others chose didn’t work for us: dropping his middle name (it’s his mother’s family name), choosing a new last name or adding my last name as a second last name for him.

Mashing syllables into a portmanteau also got nixed.

Once we decided not to change his name, I thought about what mattered to me in a name for our household. Going by his last name didn’t feel like losing my history, especially since it’s one of my ancestral names, too, if you go back far enough. I grew up explaining my hyphenated name often, so I internalized what I told people, “Kennel is my mom’s name, and Shank is my dad’s name.” Celeste and Grace are my names. I would never have dropped Grace to make Kennel-Shank my middle name, as the Social Security Administration employee suggested I do when I changed my name legally.

I opted to keep my byline, for consistency with the writing I did before marriage and because it’s unique. (Google doesn’t know of any other Kennel-Shanks in the world.) Otherwise, I go by my husband’s family name.

Though I had a good sense of the options when I got married, several years later, I wish I’d skipped the legal part. I’d hoped officially adding my husband’s name would simplify things, but it has been more of a hassle. In settings where it’s easier to use the same last name — on masking tape marking dishes for church potlucks, in restaurant reservations, in signing up for events together — nobody cares what’s on my Social Security card. Where my legal name matters — on boarding passes, on my driver’s license, in graduate school records — I’ve been told I have to use all of my names.

In the end, though, there’s probably no wrong choice. What matters is living out our values in daily life, by any name.

Celeste Kennel-Shank is a minister and community gardener in Chicago.


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