About 70 years ago, minus a few months, my parents named me “Carol”—a popular name at that time—with the middle name of Ruth. As I got older, I grew less fond of being called “Carol,” but the idea of changing it never occurred to me.
I never thought about changing my life, either, although that wouldn’t have been a bad idea. Brought up by critical and unhappy parents, I arrived at adulthood with low self esteem, self destructive habits and no real direction.
Building a life around my core values was not something I knew how to do. So I pretty much lived according to others’ expectations. Of course I hit a lot of dead ends that way and had to find my real self and direction late in life—a messy, but exhilarating, process.
At age 62, I married again. To my surprise, my husband seemed fond of my middle name. “My Ruthy,” Warren would say, the warm light of love in his eyes.
“Ruthy” was what Warren’s been mostly calling me in recent years, the same time that I’ve been writing the childhood chapters of my memoir. I’ve been setting down dialogue like, “You know, Carol, you’re not as smart as you think you are,” or, “You know Carol, no one cares what you think.” My mother had a way of loading my name with terrible disdain.
The harder I worked to bring these scenes to life, the more I felt the pain of “Carol” being voiced so unlovingly. And then there it was, my other name: Ruthy.
At first it just felt like a fun thing to say. “I’m changing my name to Ruthy.” Then one Sunday, Warren’s grown daughters came over for brunch. “Call her Ruthy for real now,” he told them. For the next two hours, hearing these young women address me as “Ruthy” felt like second and third helpings of some exquisitely sweet dessert.
The next week, I emailed the Denver Branch of Pen Women—an unusually nice group of writers I belong to—and announced I was changing my name to Ruthy Wexler. (Denker is the name of my very patient, extremely nice, long-ago first husband. It was time.) Once that large group enthusiastically obliged, there was no turning back.
Except I turned out to be not so good at it.
When a friend from Philadelphia said, “I’m not sure I can call you Ruthy I’ve known you for so long as—”, I would say, “Oh you don’t have to.” Another friend gently pointed out, “It would be less confusing if your cell phone message didn’t still say, “Hi, this is Carol.’”
And it would be far less confusing if I changed my email, I realized. But a surge of resistance swamped me at the thought. This email address is what I’ve had forever! It would feel weird and strange to just drop it! And all that legal stuff, it feels so final—
Yup. I should have remembered. When you first change, there’s an empty space that feels uncomfortable. Letting go of your past is a loss, no matter how you slice it.
I used to think that changing one’s name was a bit presumptuous, like you had no right to disturb the order of things. That was before I understood how fully one could take charge of one’s life.
But I’m doing it. Stay tuned. And please, send me a story about your own Late Life Journey.