“Now you people have names. That's because you don't know who you are. We know who we are, so we don't need names.” - Neil Gaiman, Coraline
I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it. - Rev 2:17 NIV
I am thinking of changing my last name. Just putting that into print here seems even more pretentious than it has sounded in my head.
When is a parent not a parent?
Or rather I should say I have considered changing my last name since I was 16 when my Father abandoned me, my mother and younger brother. That tragic moment and all the ensuing chaos that flowed from it precipitated into my first desire to change my last name. My childhood has some happy memories, mostly from when I was very young. But once self-awareness arrived at an early age, and it arrived early for me as a survival mechanism, most of my childhood became a long dark tunnel of physical, and emotional abuse.
The regular storms of abuse would be followed by deathly quiet interludes of silence, my anxiety scanning the horizon for the next storm. Those lulls in hostilities, moments for survival preparation, gave me space to come to one conclusion about my situation. How could I possibly be related to these two people?
I had one recurring fantasy during all this. A place my imagination took me to, in those darkest moments of abuse to make sense, to find hope and to plan my escape. For there are many ways to seek escape from abuse. Mine were to become small, to become light and absorbent, or to fade away to somewhere else. So as I bore the brunt of the violence and desrtuction, I would make an inward retreat to protect myself. I would imagine hearing a knock at the door. I would answer the door to find my real parents, come to rescue me. They would explain how, in some fanciful and exotic way, I had ended up with the wrong parents. There had been an awful mistake.
And as they took me away to my rightful life, I would imagine the relief washing over me. Relief of rescue. But there was a deeper relief I desired more than physical rescue. For I savoured the imagined relief of discovering that I had been right all along, and my suspicions were confirmed - that these two people I lived with could not possibly be my parents.
When is stepfamily real family?
My maternal grandfather was Latvian. Grandad Melkis. His name was exotic; he was exotic, barely able to speak English, gruff and daunting. A man of a few phrases for greeting and talking about life, “By golly!” being one of my favourites. During a very violent storm at home that broke over the rest of my wider family, I ended up with my Nan and Grandad Melkis. I remember him taking me on my own, on a walk to the Fish and Chip shop. My small hand engulfed in his giant hand. My arm stretched a little uncomfortably, reaching up towards the sky and this quiet, gentle man looming above me. Like a small balloon that earlier that day had bounced around a house, I was now tethered and anchored to an immovable object. As he walked, I now fluttered lightly and securely beside him.
And I remember the calm. And I remember the peace, the sense of being safe. Being safe was a rare feeling for me. But I knew when I was with Grandad Melkis I was safe from anyone and anything that would seek to hurt me.
I so wanted who I was to have come from him. I could imagine and believe that who I was, had come into being through him. Perhaps who I was had skipped a generation from him to me? So I was dismayed as I grew old enough to know and to discover that he was my step-Grandfather. None of his blood coursed through my veins. I was not exotic after all.
My grandmother, my mother's mother, was the quintessential grandmother. She was old from the moment I was born, a silver-haired lady full of smiles, cuddles, kind words, cakes and treats. I talked with her at some point, at an age, I cannot quite recall, when I was not too young and not yet a teenager, about how I wished I was Jason Melkis. I do remember her saying how wonderful it would be for the family name to continue, with my Grandad having only daughters. I remember at that moment a swell of pride about a family name. Jason Melkis, grandson of Elmars Melkis.
Then I escaped home at 18, my rescue story something for another time. I was engaged at 19, married at 21 to the still love of my life Beverley. I had conversations with my fiance about her taking my name, from Proctor to Clark. Somewhere in there were conversations about me wishing I had another last name. That perhaps was the moment to have changed my last name. I look back now and wonder why I did not.
My mother retained her husband's name. I never asked, and I never knew why she kept the name Clark, long after my father had left us. I suspect that it was because she did not want the name Melkis, her adopted name. And she never took back her birth name Kelly. Indeed families being complicated as they are her real last name was a family secret. So I suspect my mother having no idea where her last name might spring from, held on the one that anchored her the most, or perhaps annoyed her the least.
At 21, changing my name to Melkis seemed something grown up, and I did not feel grown up enough when I married to change my name. I suspect most of all I feared my mother's displeasure, for to take the name Melkis would be to receive her complaint of betrayal, as she turned every relationship I had into a betrayal of hers with me. I loved my mother as only a son can, but she remains the most cruel, and destructive person I have ever known. And she hated my Grandfather. But then again she ended up hating most people.
Death and Family Trees
So life rattled on at a pace. Both my parents took their own lives in 20011, six months apart from each other, and several thousand miles in separation from each other, something that mirrored the distance of the years between them. Of the many thoughts I have had since their deaths, a recurring one has been a question. Was I really related to them? I suppose I am still waiting for that knock on my door.
My Nan Melkis died a little over two years ago, and my Grandad passed away last year. Their deaths spurred me on to take a DNA test, and to start to build my family tree. My identity itch needed scratching. There will always remain a missing part of my identity, a maternal grandfather I will never know. And from family stories, that I believe are true I think best I never knew him.
And in all that searching of identity through my family tree, an uncomfortableness with my name started to surface again. Jason Clark. It is me but it isn’t me, or I wish that it was something else.
Mid life crisis and other considerations
So I have found myself at 48 concluding that perhaps I am now grown up enough to consider changing my last name. But now I am so much older I have other considerations to make, like my wife who has been Beverley Clark for 27 years. My children who are Clarks. Then my friends, wider family, church community, students I teach, who know only Jason Clark. How would changing my name affect them?
Is this the stuff of midlife crises I also wonder. Some change names for marriage, some for immigration and culture. But who else changes their name other than confused middle age men, or those seeking new identities for celebrity and notoriety? I know one man, one of the godliest, kind persons I have ever met, who is my spiritual director. A man who through his suffering, and after the death of his wife came to change his name. He changed both his first and last name. Beyond my vanities, and insecurities, I wonder if like him I can change my name to describe who I have emerged to be.
I have reviewed all this with my wife and my kids. They are kind and understanding, able to look at what this means for me, as much as it might for them. I wonder if they are Clarks in a way that a change of my name would betray.
Possible Names I am considering
So Jason Melkis I still consider. But the change of surname puts me at odds with my children’s last name. And I would be spending some considerable time explaining to everyone that Jason Melkis was aka Jason Clark. My family tree has led to a name that feels like me, something I have tried on so to speak, saying it out-loud and writing it down.
Jason Swan Clark.
For on my Father’s side, a little over 100 years ago, my family name was SwanClark. When I told my wife, this discovery she remarked, “So I could have been SwanClark all this time!”. It has a beauty and elegance about it for sure.
It seems Swan comes from Sven, and my DNA test confirms my Scandinavian heritage, of Nordic peoples coming to the northeast of England, and changing their name from Sven to Swan (As friends have pointed out that makes me part Viking). Two houses merged and Clarks and Svens became SwanClark. Mind you my paternal great great great grandfather John Swan Clark had a criminal record. I discovered he was sentenced to 1 month in prison in 1830 for the crime of larceny (In English law larceny was replaced as a statutory crime by theft in 1968).
So I am considering taking back this family name. Because it is a family name, I descend from it (as best as I can tell subject to more DNA tests) from John Swan Clark. My family tree on my mother’s side, is stunted and stops. The name of my maternal ancestors a mystery still to be unearthed. So to become Jason Swan Clark would be to take up and inhabit a family name. Of course I considered Jason Swan but that sounds like a Bond movie character.
Then Swans are beautiful. They are a symbol of grace, and elegance. And as noted from my wife's exclamation, Swan moderates the name Clark into something else. To moderate means to make or become less extreme, intense, rigorous, or violent. That moderation in sound and name feels like the experience and texture of my life. Jesus has moderated the violence in my life into beauty. The Lord called me by many new and wonderful names (Is 62:2b,4,5b).
So Swan Clark is my family name, Swan Clark embodies and maps the textures of my life. It is also somewhat practical.
My younger brother closest to me in age is Matthew Clark. Or rather he became Matthew Shaw Clark when he married taking his wife’s last name. I reviewed my potential name change with him, and he explained how his changed name works in practice.
It seems I and others still just call him Matthew Clark. We conveniently drop the Shaw in everyday speech. To become Swan Clark, he pointed out, allows people to continue to know and refer to me as Jason Clark. There is a continuity and ease of location, for people looking for Matthew Clark, to find Matthew Shaw Clark. The same locating would be afforded with my use of Jason Swan Clark. It means I stay Jason Clark, father of my Clark children, husband of Beverley Clark.
Now back to vanity. There are many Jason Clarks. For instance the well-known actor Jason Clarke. BTW my family tree often lists relatives interchangeably as Clark or Clarke. Clark was Clarke and Clarke was Clark.
Then there is a world champion darts player, a baseball player, a US senator, and even porn star Jason Clark. Be careful with your Google searches. Then there is the US pastor, singer/songwriter and author Jason Clark, who is not to be confused with me, but often is.
But a Google search for Jason Swan Clark reveals no results. It also seems all Jason Swan Clark domain names are available to claim and register. I wonder how long it will take Google to catalgoue this post and list the name?
So will I change my name? I might, and I am leaning in that direction. The writing I make here part of reflecting and considering and trying on the title to see if it fits.
Yours, as ever,
Jason Swan Clark