I’ve known since high school our last name isn’t our “real” last name. It hasn’t bothered me. As the story goes, brothers who arrived in the United States in the 1890s had a hard time getting the guys on Ellis Island to understand what they were saying when asked their last name. It happened a lot. I imagine the guys tasked with processing immigrants as they arrived didn’t have an abundance of patience. All those accents, all those strange last names, all those people, all that noise, noise, noise noise! Who the heck knew how to spell what might have sounded something like ahn-gell (hard G)?
I can relate. People butcher my last name all the time. They butcher my first name, too, which is why I’ve always gone by the nickname my older sister gave me when my parents brought me home from the hospital. You would, too, if people called you Sue Ellen, Suzanna, Suzanne, Joanne, Louanne, Swann, Susan and anything other than your real name.
I’ve always liked the Sam-I-Am naming story. As my mother told me many times, my older-by-three-years sister wanted a brother. When my parents called home to tell her she had a baby sister, my sister reportedly hung up on my parents and refused to speak to them. When I finally came home, my sister thought I looked like her favorite character from her favorite book, Sam-I-Am in Green Eggs and Ham, so that’s what she called me and it stuck.
I love being named for a cartoon character. Makes me feel a little cartoonish, a little like a character. It definitely has made me memorable, especially when I relate the story after introducing myself and I get the obvious question, “Is your real name Samantha?” It is not. It is Sam. Sam I am.
Back to the last name. Our last name, I was told, was German for angel. Angels we might have been, but the kids on the playground weren’t. Our surname was twisted on the playground into angle, acute angle, bad angle, an gull, and, of course, the perennial favorite, Ingalls, as in Little House on the Prairie. Don’t chalk it up to some well-read tykes: the TV show aired for much of my ’70s kidhood.
I still get Ingalls all these decades later, but down here in the South, it competes with Ingles, the grocery store. I appreciate the homophonia, but why, for the love of there and their, when I spell my last name, do people respond, “Oh, like the grocery store!” Um, sure, if the grocery store didn’t start with that I or end with the S not at the end of my name.
All of which is to say I wasn’t itching to know my “real” last name. It could have so many more letters to scramble. It could be more malleable or mangleable. I like the last name I’ve had all my life, so much so I kept it when I married. It’s who I am, who I’ve always been. Who will I be if I’m no longer an angel with an E?
My husband, on the other hand, is intrigued by this idea that we are not who we say we are. It’s a great melting pot story. My mother was the same way, but she never got the “truth” in all her years of shaking the family tree. She did confirm, however, that dad’s family really wasn’t all German. That’s how the whole debate about the surname came up. If they weren’t German, how could they be angels with an E?
A few months ago, after winding the family yarn with his cousin, someone he last saw 60 some-odd years ago, my dad heard the other name but he promptly forgot it, as tangled as it was in reminiscences about the madcappers and alcoholics in our lineage. My dad did remember a story about his great grandfather being a butler for the Hapsburgs–a story to rival my maternal grandfather running rum for the Mafia during Prohibition–and his cousin did confirm the family originated from Hungary although the area went through so many occupations and power shifts, it’s hard to say who was Hungarian or French or Austrian or Czech or German at any given time.
Upon hearing all this, my husband asked my dad for permission to talk with dad’s cousin Rose to learn more and dad agreed. Armed with this information, and a phone number, my husband sat down on a Sunday and asked if I wanted in on the phone call with cousin Rose. I demured. I felt a strange urge to cry, and a bit of a panic.
“Don’t mess with my ancestry!” I wanted to say. “Leave my name alone!”
Of course, I heard Shakespeare mocking me, “What’s in a name? This Rose with another last name couldn’t make thee not thee nor less stinky.”
I wanted to tell him not to make the call, but he was so excited, is so intrigued by history, I didn’t have the heart to say it. I also didn’t want to seem ungrateful or immature so I kept quiet.
The call commenced. I sat opposite my husband at our dining room table as he chatted amiably with my relative about my family tree. I halfheartedly listened to his side of the conversation, watched as he took notes, and, then I heard him say, “So, the last name was the Hungarian word for angel.”
Something shook in my head. Already seated in front of my laptop, I typed in “Hungarian angel” and hit “search.”
There it was: Angyal.
So that’s who were supposed to be, I thought. A great sadness washed over me. No angel with an E, we’re angels with an A. . .and a y. Why, indeed. Why were we given another name and what does it mean to me now? Am I now someone else?
Does it matter? That’s what I’ve been asking myself for the past few weeks. An angel by any spelling from any country is still an angel, so what exactly has changed?
Here’s what’s changed. Right now in the U.S. surnames matter a lot. Names that “sound African” or even “sound foreign” get people waylaid at customs. A hospital in Atlanta spent years in this century telling parents who came here legally as refugees they could not give their surnames to their newly born children. They were told they have to give the child an “American” name or else the child couldn’t go to school or get anything else American children got. I kid you not. My friend and colleague wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division asking for an investigation three years ago. He got it and the hospital was found to be violating these patients’ civil rights. The DOJ ordered the hospital to cease this racist practice but levied no penalty.
Today, people are being profiled, being shut out of our country because their country of origin is seen by some, especially the 45th president, to be a bad place, and not just a bad place, a bad place that begets bad hombres. An excellent book about the topic is Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America Fifth Edition by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva.
I’m very white so wondering how different my life would have been, would be today, if I had the last name my ancestors brought with them from Hungary seems a little foolish. It wouldn’t really matter, I don’t think, because any perceptions about me would be erased the moment they laid eyes on me. I’m very white so Sam Marie Angyal would probably work in my favor, but if I wasn’t white, there’s a good chance it would have been problematic.
What’s in a name? That I didn’t want to know says a lot about me, although I am not exactly sure what all it means. I now know my identity comes, in part, from my nickname plus the surname given to my father’s ancestors when they arrived in their new homeland. I now know I don’t want to know too much about my ancestors: I like the distance we’ve maintained, but why? Do I really not want to know because it doesn’t matter or because it does matter? What might be the matter with them or with me and might it matter to me? How important is it for anyone to know where they are on the family timeline? Is my reluctance to know my roots based on the fear of change or the fear of self-knowledge or the fear of sounding just a little more ethnic than before?
It’s easy to shrug and say it simply is this: an angel by any other name might or might not sound like me, but there’s so much more to it. It’s time for me to get real. I’m no angel, no matter how you spell it, and that’s a good place to start.
To follow me or to sign up for posts by email, click the little box at the top left of the page (above the header) and the “follow” options will appear. Thank you!