Friend? Family? Should we start a new Circle?” I asked.
I put you in family, G. You’re an Altman,” she answered.
I laughed when I read my stepdaughter’s sweet and swift response to how I should list her among my Circles on Google+. I thought a moment about her instantaneous claim that I was an Altman (my husband’s name) before typing the words,
“Actually, for what it’s worth…I kind of sort of think of you as a Minoli!”
An innocent enough exchange on the surface, its subtext was rich and packed with meaning – that even if a woman doesn’t change her name when she gets married (yes, I am one of those women) she is still somehow automatically considered a new member of her husband’s clan, rather than remaining a member of her birth clan who has simply chosen to enrich her life with the experience of marriage.
The difference in sentiment between her answer and my response gnawed at me. “I put you in family, G. You’re an Altman,” is such a confident and declarative statement, decidedly no nonsense and optimistic, as if there is absolutely no question that I am one of my husband’s clan.
My response, on the other had, was decorated in the helter-skelterish “I kind of sort of think of you as a Minoli!” Even I was aware that the exclamation point I tacked on at the end like a caboose was a last ditch effort to put my surname forth as of equal worth to that of my husband.
The tentative raising of my hand against traditional thought was not a feminist cri. It was not a contest of surnames and I was not throwing down the Minoli gauntlet against that of the mighty Altmans, even though they outnumbered the members of my family by far. Nor was I making a statement about which name I liked better, although my husband likes to say that half the world claims it is Italian and the other half wishes it were, thus his fondness for my last name. Nor was I reminding my stepdaughter that I had lived with my father’s name since I was born, that it had served me well for over five decades, and that I therefore saw no reason to change it, accurate though it would have been to mention that changing my name would have been detrimental in many ways, since I was known as a jewelry designer and writer by my birth name and that is also how I am listed with various actors’ unions. Besides, filling out the requisite paperwork to change my name legally was anathema to every cell in my body.
While I could have legitimately and acceptably made any or all of these cases, the plain truth is that I didn’t take my husband’s name for a far simpler and more primal reason – that of discovering, when I was in Italy researching my father’s family in the State Archive in Parma, that I could not trace many of my grandmother’s female relatives because when they got married and took their husbands’ names they vanished into the vast sea of anonymous Italian women not fortunate enough to have been born with an historical name that would have allowed them traceable passage through life, as had, for instance, the Medici women. It was bizarre to uncover records about several sets of female twins in my grandparents’ family, an occurrence common in Italy – C’è qualquosa nell’acqua! – and that I only knew what had happened to the twin who married a Minoli, her sister’s existence a complete mystery. Sitting there in the dusty archive reading about my family brought forth a new pride in my father’s surname. I couldn’t imagine joining the infinitely long list of women willing to consign to genealogy’s dustbin whatever record there might have been of their singular presence on Planet Earth.
I had internally debated the connotations of “single,” “married,” “divorced” and “widowed” status ever since my father died when I was five, noticing with dismay and not a little fear when I was a teenager how hard my mother worked to overcome being a widowed mother on a limited budget raising three small children on her own. My mother, like so many other women in her shoes, had it rough. Married mothers scrutinized her every move, and I would wince with embarrassment at her efforts to give the impression that we were just like other families when we were most certainly not anything like other families we knew. And yet I felt a kind of solidarity with the game face she painted on every day, joining her in her efforts at a pretense of normalcy in whatever way I could. The stares that our lopsided fatherless family received gave birth to an intense desire for perfection. I would set about ironing the wrinkles out of my clothes with the same determined focus with which my mother filed her rough-edged fingernails after an afternoon in the vegetable garden, convinced that a crumple-free appearance would mask all that was missing from my life.
It would be many years before I had enough age under my belt to be angry, rather than embarrassed, about the way my mother had been treated by women more fortunate than she. Not mature enough to realize that my embarrassment came from my desire to fit in with the crowd, I felt I had to apologize for being the daughter of a woman whose husband had died, the cold reality of that fact forever barricading me off from any pretense to normal. And it would be many more years before I began to see that the protections of marriage often give birth to a cruelty towards those who are not, it being a petty irrelevance whether that is a result of divorce or death. Blurry-eyed but not blind, I slowly began to see that people often prefer the company of people who are exactly like them, and discourage the practice of welcoming those who are not.
Technically I was a child of the second wave feminist movement of the 60s, 70s and 80s, and fully embraced its promises of freedom of choice – about marriage, work, money and sex – none of which choices I ever had to enact, party because I had been working for money since I was 14, partly because I never had a desire to get married and have children in the first place, and partly because I always thought a woman’s sexuality belonged to her, not to her marital status. For brewing inside my family insecurity was the kernel of a belief that I was enough on my own, that my life, as a singular statement, did not need blending with that of another in order to be valid. The procreative legacy, the only one culturally thought worth leaving behind, had somehow slipped into the vast couloir between my parents’ generation and my own.
But it was not the polemics of the women’s movement that nurtured the independence that promised to visit upon me the same stares visited upon my single mother. Rather, my desire to find out who I was as an individual had been nurtured in the art studios of my mothers’ female friends. It was these women who were my mother’s most commiserating companions after my father died, and it was because of them that I began to define what it meant to be a woman separate from a relationship with a man, even though I somehow knew instinctively that this separation would set me up for infinite criticism in the future. It was these women who taught me the power of self-expression through creativity. Yet it would be many years before I would read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and begin to imagine earning enough money to afford my own studio with a lock on the door, behind which I could create whatever I wanted, alone, free from judgment, free from criticism, free from being what others wanted me to be, free from any labeled relationship attachment.
Stately, solemn, serious and sensual, red lips accenting a tanned face framed by silver marcelled hair that draped over one eyebrow, Florence Pierce had been widowed about the same time as my mother, the benefit of a pension from her deceased husband making it considerably easier for her to raise one son than for my mother to raise one son and two daughters. My mother had to go to work, while Florence did not. Yet in the immediate years after her husband’s death she abandoned her artistic pursuits, picking them up again around the age of 40, her powerful hands beginning to produce intricately sandblasted wood doors and art works, transforming herself over many decades into a highly respected contemporary artist. She did not achieve financial security until the abundantly mature age of 75, when her shows of pure color minimalist acrylic resin paintings finally began to sell out. The last time I spoke with her, when she was about 85, she confessed the compromises she had made to become an artist,
Do you think that because I’ve been single all these years that I don’t want the companionship of a man? I think about it all the time, about romance, love, and sex of course. A woman is never too old to think about sex. The desire for it, for love, never leaves you, no matter how old. But it wouldn’t have been possible to do all of this had I gotten married again. And it wouldn’t have been possible if I had to work like your mother. I know that. A woman needs time.”
Florence kept her maiden name of Miller when she married, only changing it to her husband’s name of Pierce after he died, his name ultimately becoming the one by which she would be known as an artist. She fully inhabited it and absorbed it into her life, like mirrored Plexiglas absorbed the resins with which she painted. A sandblasted Guadalupe she gave my mother, the initials FP cut boldly into the lower right corner, hangs over my desk – a singular expression of her presence on Planet Earth – next to a pen and ink my father did of Il Croce Al Trebbio in Florence, Italy, the name S. Minoli penned neatly onto the lower right corner, an equally singular expression of his presence on terra firma.
As solemn, serious and sensual as was Florence, Alice Garver was ebullient, gregarious and full out sexual, equally tall and tanned, a cascade of chestnut-colored hair falling over her shoulders, her bosom and down her back. I can still hear her laugh, and can mimic the affectionate way she would stretch out the syllables of my mother’s name when they’d sit together on the patio on a hot summer Saturday evening drinking ice cold beer out of cans. Alice and her husband Jack, both painters, had three small children, but it was Alice who held the show together, her emotions shifting from moment-to-moment like the sudden appearance of a gusty New Mexico sandstorm, the conflicting demands of mother, wife and painter battling it out, calling to her, wearing her down, summoning her energy, alternately filling her with joy and grief, the staggering weight of it all poured onto the canvases of her paintings. Her painting studio was their living room, shared with the chaos of family life and friendships. But still she painted, her growing reputation as an artist tearing holes in her marriage, straining the time available to be a mother, a wife and a painter beyond what her life force could tolerate, until the last gasp of energy was drained out of her and she died, at 42, from spinal meningitis. Devastated, my mother hung two paintings Alice had given her in her bedroom, one of a couple dancing, another of a woman dancing alone.
It was this subject I always heard them discussing whenever they were together – whether to dance with a man or dance alone, how to dance with a man in the first place, how finally it seems that very often a woman must dance alone. Alice had taken her husband’s name when she married, and when she died more remained of her well-known struggle to be herself than of the work she created as an artist. A series of murals she had painted on the walls of the First National Bank building were washed over years later, as though they and the woman who painted them were of no significance. Little is left of her work, yet the paintings she gave my mother now hang in my bedroom, and remain the essence of how I remember this singular female presence from my youth.
Much has been written about how few female artists have made it to prominence compared to men, which is true of composers, filmmakers and theatre directors. The numbers for women poets and writers are slightly better but hardly by much. A writing table in the kitchen takes up far less space than a painting or sculpting studio, or the office spaced needed to carve out a career in film or theatre.
The truth is that women remain the social glue that holds families together. They are expected to tend to their home fires, husbands, children and friends before they nurture their own artistic dreams, dreams that cannot be cultivated if a woman cannot find regular respite from household responsibilities. An artistic or poetic Muse will not knock upon a door where time, privacy and singular presence are not welcome, encouraged and respected.
Women of my mother’s generation took their husbands’ names almost as a matter of course, with little thought about what it meant to give up one of the few things that defined them as individuals. My mother was not an artist herself, though my father was – an architect, engineer, painter, draftsman – and she was happy to champion his artistic endeavors. She loved art and actively sought artists out as friends. She had tremendous respect for Alice and Florence, but did not have a career that required thinking about how she would be known. She did not have to come home, as Alice did, and figure out which to be first: woman, wife, mother or artist. Once Florence rededicated herself to her artistic purpose and her spare time was almost always fully given over to painting rather than socializing, it was interesting, but painful, to watch my mother struggle with the meaning of female friendship and support. For Florence, as a female artist, wasn’t behaving any differently than Alice Garver’s husband, Jack, had behaved as a painter – Florence was simply putting her art first, and in the process, perhaps out of defensive self-protection, developed a bit of a hard edge, once telling me, “Your mother doesn’t really understand what it takes to become an artist.” The truth was that for my mother being an artist was out of the question. She needed to survive and to pay the mortgage and every choice in her life revolved around making ends meet as best she could. I wondered if Florence Pierce had ever read A Room of One’s Own.
The differences between Florence Pierce and Alice Garver are sobering. Florence adopted her husband’s name only after he died, and it was only then that she had the time to become the artist she was meant to be. As for Alice, she took her husband’s name before she really knew who she was as an artist, unable thereafter to create a boundary between what she needed for herself creatively and what her family needed from her. Which definition of ourselves do we put forth first? Is it wife? Or mother? Friend? Colleague? Woman? Or it is the one that separates our identity from those of other women, the one that draws a distinction between who we are, what we do and what we are called? I wondered if Alice Garver had ever read A Room of One’s Own.
Names are powerful. One’s name is a room of one’s own. It announces our singular existence when we are introduced to someone new. It contains within its syllables our history, our singular presence on Planet Earth, and the possibility of our identity in the future. How it sounds on our lips, how it makes us feel, what it means to us personally – these things matter. If a woman keeps her own name when she gets married or takes that of her husband, it should be done with as much consciousness as laying a brushstroke on canvas, for when the paint is dry someone somewhere is bound to ask…who is that painter? Who is that woman? What is her history? Where did she come from? Where was she born? Where did she live? And it is important to be able to find her, to trace her path through life, to know who she was separate from her family, her husband, her friends.
I am a woman. I am a writer. I am a designer. I am a wife.
And my name is Giselle Minoli. It has been since the day I was born and will be until the day I die, and forever thereafter.