Monday, August 4, 2008

Mason is my Middle Name

I am not a brick layerer, no. That is not how I became a mason. My father's grandfather, Joseph, immigrated to the United States from Hungary. He was a Mason. Well, scratch that. He may not have actually been a Mason either (are there really any Masons out there who are 100% sure they’re Masons?). My late grandfather, Papa, once suggested that his father's actual surname was some variation on Mason-- maybe Mascin or Masan or Masirevich. But Mason was the legal name that Joseph was given, nevertheless. When I think of the name, Mason, I think of three short, roly-poly, pot-bellied, roundandred-faced Hungarian men: my Papa and his brothers. I also think of Joseph, who--it turns out--molested some of the female members of the family when they were children. It certainly spoils my image of him as a grandfatherly, bald-headed Pope or God type (you'll know the type if you are Catholic; he's the Catholic version of God, with his shiny scalp and white dress, that you prayed to as a child or may still pray to). I guess it's fitting for that image to have been spoiled. Mason, also meaning brick-layerer, has a nice, solid sound to it. It's not a name you want to let go of, even if it came to you from the rude structure of patriarchy and even if it came to the United States with a somewhat monstrous and very human man who you’ve only seen in pictures yet whose genes flow through you.

Until I turned twenty, Mason was my last name. Marie was both my and my mother's (and a large percent of U.S. women's) middle name. Jessica Marie Mason was a nice name, and a very appropriate name for my former self and her guilt-ridden, martyrous ways. I don’t have any particularly negative feeling against Marie; I (or my ego) just never bonded with it. Jessica is slightly abrasive and very interesting on the tongue, Marie is, well, too familiar on the tongue to be interesting. And I don’t mean to insult you if your name is Marie or your middle name is Marie or your mother’s mother’s mother’s name was Marie. And then, there is Mason. It’s becoming increasingly popular as a boy’s name in America, which is in part why I find it so appropriate and appealing as my middle name. I like that no one (directly) gave me the name, Mason. I chose it and I chose how to use it. My father and his father, despite my deep love for them, had little to do with it.

A wonderful, bookish strangerwoman at the social security office in Amherst, New York gave me my new name: Jessica Mason McFadden. I say wonderful because she transgressed (for the benefit of my wife and me) on what seemed to be a whim. I didn’t speak to her, I only watched her from a small ticket window. She transgressed based on her own concept of fairness, not some indoctrinated rule-bound one. Or so I imagine. Maybe she was pissed off at a colleague, or trying to get back at an American politician who crossed her one too many times. Regardless, her moment’s decision changed our lives and (at least momentarily) restored our hope in humanity. When we arrived at the social security office in the hopes of changing my name, we weren’t quite sure what to expect but figured it was worth a try. We brought our Canadian marriage certificate with us, and I presented it to a middle-aged male employee on the other side of the window. I did not say much, but passed the certificate through to the other side. He looked at it, at first pleasantly, and then his expression soured increasingly as he (must have) realized that the spouse on my certificate was a woman. Oh, God help us, he must have been thinking: not this! No, actually, I still cannot figure from his annoyance whether he had dealt with this “ethical” dilemma many times or had never encountered such a request before (that dilemma being that same-sex marriages, regardless of state law and private institutional recognition, are not federally recognized as legal marriages in the United States). He looked at me with great unease, and said, “Uh, I don’t think so. I’ll have to check,” -- then off he went in search of what he assumed would be a straightforward, federally (re)sound(ing) "NO." I watched closely as he had a tense conversation with a short-haired woman, whom I assume was his supervisor. She looked at me, paused for a moment, and said, “Well, it’s legally recognized in Canada so I don’t see a problem.” He came back, looking unhappier than when he had left me at the window, and said that he would go ahead and file the name change. And so my name officially/federally/legally became Jessica Mason McFadden, and I have the social security card to prove it. Had that woman not have been present, he would probably have denied my request and Sandy and I would have had to jump through a lot of legal and financial hoops to change my name. I don’t why she broke the rules, but I imagine she must have known what we would have had to go through to change my name if she had obeyed the rules -- and how unnecessary and unfair those rules were. That social security card is incredibly important; it represents my identity and connection to Sandy (and, now, our kids). And it does its job; it provides security for all of us as the McFadden family. Yes, it’s political. Yes, it’s personal.

My father takes issue with my name change. This came out a couple of months ago while he was visiting us for the weekend. He saw the article about Western Illinois University’s annual Big Picture in the Macomb Journal, and it was brought to his attention (again, because this of course was not news to him in any way) that I am Jessica Mason McFadden and Sandy is Sandra Lee McFadden and Darah is Darah Sage McFadden. Neither Sandy nor Darah are Masons, yet somehow we are all McFaddens. So he said he had a question to ask me. Of course: why did you take Sandy’s last name but she didn’t take your last name? Oh, I knew it wasn’t going to go very well, but I had hoped my rational explanations would be enough to calm his emotional issue. He went right for it, and asked pointedly how I can support equality within relationships as a so-called feminist yet we did not have equal last names and our daughter would only take Sandy’s name. Sure, I explained that Sandy had already established her name professionally as Sandra L. McFadden and that I hadn’t yet done that. I explained that I liked the way McFadden sounded as a last name for myself and for Darah, and that I did not want Darah to have more than three names (Darah Sage Mason McFadden would be his ideal, I suppose). I had to remind him that my last name isn’t really Mason McFadden; Mason is my middle name and McFadden is my last name (although I usually include all three names because I like including my middle name and having the full name written out). I explained that I already had the biological connection to Darah, so I felt it was right and fair for Sandy to share the name with her. But perhaps most importantly, I explained, was that it was one way of challenging heterosexual norms. Now I understand that many people challenge patriarchal and heterosexual norms and institutions by refusing to marry or by taking each other’s names equally, but Sandy and I are challenging those norms and institutions simply by virtue of my having taken the last name of a WOMAN. It may not be equal in one sense, but it is certainly unusual and transgressive in another. I am a woman who is challenging the heterosexual institution of marriage by taking a woman's last name. And now we will change the patriarchal line of names by having had, at least at one point, a woman rather than a man pass down a name. Our children will be named after both of their mothers. This is a progressive action and has little to do with whether other areas of our name-choices and life-choices are stereotypically feminist or egalitarian or progressive.

As a feminist, I do not run my life according to any prescribed "feminist rules or doctrine"; I run my life according to my own habits of mind and sense of morality. My personal definition of feminism involves these core principles: Feminism (take out your notepad) is a state of mind and action in which one supports the right of her or himself as well as the rights of others to live authentically and possess agency, as well as for the equal right of each person to make decisions on her/his own behalf while not harming any other individual’s safety and well being in the process. Well, something like that. Something very broad and yet very simple. I don’t know if my definition works for you; it certainly didn’t work for my father. He still feels dissatisfied with our decision: that Darah will not be connected to him and his father by name. It works for us, though, and that’s what matters. If you are feeling sorry for him, you needn’t worry. My brother, Billy, has assured him that the name will be carried on—all nine of his hypothetical children will be named Mason. And, although my father doesn’t like it, I’m still a Mason. It’s just in the middle of my name.


Anonymous said...

Very enlightening to read. I have often worried that the Mason family might not really respect your relationship with Sandra. I am glad to see that you support your spouse to your parents. I would guess you would experience the same from Sandra's parents if they were alive to know.

operaerobic said...

I don't have a middle name (I was allowed to choose one as a child, and then the military took it away from me when I enlisted, they told me it's not on your birth certificate, and you signed the mother f-ing contract—apparently I hadn't read my own fine print).