My lovely cousin Scott recently visited the grave of my great-great-great-grandfather, the last of my Drysdale ancestors to be buried in Scotland, before his widow and children emigrated to New Zealand in the 19th century.
A cousin of my Dad’s had done the sleuthing to find the unmarked grave in the 1970s and wrote a summary of the family story as far as he knew it. Scott included that document in his email on his own search, and it reminded me of things I’d forgotten or never known about this branch of my family.
Drysdale is my Grandma‘s maiden name and my Dad’s middle name, so the story of this line of my ancestors has always stuck more in my consciousness than some of the others. What struck me this time was reading that my great-great-grandfather, James Drysdale, who emigrated as a young adult with his mother and siblings, met his wife, Kate Woodward, on the ship.
And that’s how I instinctively think of her: his wife. Of course, she’s actually my great-great-grandmother, and maybe I even have her eyes or nose or sense of humour. She was from Wiltshire, where I’ve seen the baptismal font another set of ancestors were sprinkled from, whose surname I carry, but I never realised I had another grounding in that county. All because her name was snuffed out when she married.
This is the surname problem, for me. I feel more connected to the men in my family tree, whose antecedents I can recite back to the Old Country, because their names are repeated and handed down through the generations. I cherish the feeling of connection I have with the Scotsman buried at Old Polmont church, because his name is so familiar to me. I just wish I felt so close to the women in my family tree, and their male ancestors.
My Mum has done some genealogical research for us, so thankfully I was able to look through and be reminded that if naming worked differently in our culture I could also be a Taylor, a Woodward, a Busch, a Rankin, a Neal, an Oslington, a Harvey, a Raper, a Grebin, a Matthews, a Smith, a Williams, a McGarr or a Frazer.
Beagley, Brickenden, Collins, Greenvil, Schueneman, Markohms: of course the list is enormous (and we can see more of it thanks to tools like www.ancestry.com). Someone reading is bound to be a long-lost cousin, as we’ll find out now that I’ve written that list. Is your surname MacDonald, McDougald, Binnie, Beaton, Waddell or Stuart? How about McStravick, Graham, Bolton, Nichols, Sadler, Pooly, Moles, Ewing, Anderson or Oates? Get in touch!
When my husband and I were married, our friend who was the celebrant didn’t announce us with our new surnames to the congregation, because we hadn’t yet decided what to call ourselves, despite hours and months of conversations about it. Being married helped, though, and we decided before the reception.
There is no perfect, practical solution in our culture. We have gone for the admittedly unsustainable double-barrel approach, combining our two surnames. So we and our son all have the same unwieldy, unpronounceable surname, and our poor boy will have trouble if he wants to marry someone one day and do the same thing. But we’re happy to leave it to him to figure out.
What I like about our choice is that our boy will feel like he belongs equally to all his grandparents, because he shares all their surnames. He still won’t feel terribly connected to the Woodwards, Busches or Rankins, probably, so perhaps that will feed his own discontent with patriarchy.
There’s more to say about the surname problem another day, of course: the class implications of double-barrelling in the United Kingdom, the ways different cultures pass on names, the various feminist and non-feminist options. More than with most of my strongly-held beliefs, I do see that in the absence of sensible, generationally-sustainable feminist solutions, we all have to choose something with drawbacks, whether you’ve done the traditional husband’s name thing or something else. It also seems much less common to do something untraditional in the UK than in New Zealand, by a long way.
That’s all by way of saying I’d love your thoughts on the issue, but please don’t feel you have to defend your decision or critique someone else’s. None of us has the perfect answer on this one, sadly. And please get in touch if we might be related! Any long-lost McStravicks out there?
If you’re newish to Sacraparental, you might like to check out the Sacraparental Facebook feed, with daily links and treats, and my Pinterest boards, especially the on-topic Gender Politics and Marriage and Relationships.