You don't have to spend much time with my dad to know that he is unconventional.
He has a loud, booming voice that isn't regulated when he's talking with excitement. He regularly expresses himself in iambic pentameter. And it's not often clear when he's joking and when he's serious.
For example, my dad made quite an impression on my husband, Jimmy, the first time they met, in the pre-dawn, early stages of our dating relationship.
My dad was sitting at a table in the kitchen, cracking buckets of nuts gathered from a towering walnut tree that was pelting the driveway with golf ball-sized pods. He didn't break his rhythm as Jimmy introduced himself. Then my dad quickly shifted the conversation to one of his favorite topics — our family name.
"Choate means perfection," my dad told him. He gave a few examples of how he could substitute the name "Choate" where the word perfect is used and keep the same meaning.
Jimmy thought it was a little odd, but I'm sure I ushered him out of the kitchen before he could start to think I was odd, too. Months later, as our relationship grew more serious, my dad made a comment about how maybe Jimmy should change his last name to Choate if we got married. Jimmy kindly said no, and I laughed it off as another of my dad's zany jokes — but really, neither of us were sure that he was kidding.
Ironically, I wasn't particularly fond of my name as I was growing up. I thought my first name was plain — and there were about five other girls named Amy in my class, so I always had to use an initial after my name so my teachers could keep us straight. On the upside, my last name started with a "C," so I was usually near the front of the line when we lined up alphabetically. But on the downside, most people don't know how to pronounce the name Choate.
I've heard it pronounced "Co-ate" and "Cho-ah-tee" and "Shoat" and "Coat," and I grew tired of having to correct people all of the time. ("It's pronounced Choate, one syllable, like "goat" but with a ch-sound in front of it," I always used to say.) I could never give my name without also spelling it, because it was so unusual.
I used to be jealous of people with easy surnames like "Smith" or "Jones" because they were so easy to say. And then, over time, perhaps through my father's indoctrination of what a wonderful word "Choate" is, it started to grow on me.
My name became part of my identity — something I loved for being so unique. Being a Choate was weird and strange and unconventional at times, but my name linked me into generations of other names on our family tree.
My parents announced the birth of my siblings by way of mailing a copy of our family tree to everyone they knew. They kept a copy of the tree, written in a thick, medieval font, framed on the wall of our house. I spent hours staring at that tree, wondering who the other names were, feeling no connection to them.
But then, at the prospect of getting married and changing my name for good, I was excited to branch out into a new family of my own making, but I also balked at the idea of no longer being a Choate. I was conflicted.
My dad always taught me to be proud of who I am. He bought me special scissors and wooden measurement sticks that said "left-handers rule" because I'm a lefty. He bought us shirts and hats and pants that said "Choate" on them. And of course, he told us what a perfect name it is. I wanted to build that same kind of pride in my own little family.
As for my name, I am a little of both — Nielsen and Choate. Professionally, it's hyphenated. With friends, it's Amy. At church, it's Nielsen. At the doctor's office, it's Choate. Sometimes I get confused and can't remember the name I've given. Sometimes I feel like I'll never change my name. Sometimes I think I'll change it tomorrow.
As it turns out, I'm a little unconventional, too.
Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.
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