Amy Choate-Nielsen: Changing names is a generations-old dilemma

Published: Tuesday, April 15 2014 4:15 p.m. MDT

I love nicknames.

To me, they represent the bond of familiarity and intimacy that good friends have, and I have spent much of my life searching for and building those bonds.

I remember the first time my sister gave me a nickname when we were kids — it started as "Aim," then changed to “Toothpaste” as a joke. One of my best friends in the world still calls me Aim. And there was a period of my life when all of my friends called me Amy Choate. Not Amy. Or Choate, like my grandmother Fleeta called her husband, but Amy Choate.

Naturally, when I got married, I had a hard time giving up that name. It was part of my identity. It was part of the bond I had with people who cared about me, people I called my friends. It was something that made me proud.

The night before my wedding, as excited as I was to marry my husband, the idea of not being a Choate anymore made me sad.

I felt homesick.

So, I put off changing my name. I didn’t want to hassle with getting a new driver's license or a new Social Security card, anyway. I figured I’d wait until my passport expired and I felt less like a shaky bird leaving my parents’ nest. I figured I’d do it some day, just not today.

But honestly, I wish I’d just done it then.

Now changing my name is an even bigger ordeal. We’re married. We share a bank account. We share a house and kids and insurance. And, other than the times when I forget what name I’ve given at the doctor’s office, nobody has any idea what my last name is.

And I’m not the only one in my family that’s been slow to change. My sister announced just this week that, after four children and nine years of marriage, she finally dropped Choate from her last name to make life less complicated.

I think our allegiance to the Choate name has something to do with my father.

He takes every opportunity to buy us all Choate paraphernalia whenever he can. (Connecticut prep school Choate-Rosemary Hall has all of the Choate swag you could ever want, including shirts, pants and hats — all of which I have.) And he also uses a handful of different names, depending on the circumstance.

He was born John Irvan Choate. But someone — presumably his mother, who died before I was born — added Moritzky, hand-written in ink, to his birth certificate. Moritzky was my grandmother’s maiden name. So for most of my father’s life, he’s vacillated between John Irvan Choate and John Irvan Moritzky Choate. His marriage certificate and driver’s license are John I Choate; but sometimes, on other official documents, he adds Moritzky to it.

Why? For one reason, he does it to pay homage to his mother. For another, he wants to set himself apart, because, as he says, “There are lots of John Choates.”

When he said that, I laughed, at first.

Lots of John Choates? Really? How many have you met in life?

But as I looked through my ancestry, I realize he’s right. There are lots of John Choates in our family tree. The first John Choate I can find in my family history was born in 1490 in Essex, England. He had children, and a couple of generations later, John Choate, his great-grandson, I believe, was born in 1624 in England and emigrated to America. My ancestors born after John Choate came to America passed the name down for generations, including my great-great grandfather Gabriel, who had a John who died as a baby.

It’s nice to know that I am one of them. And I’m still proud to wear my Choate baseball hat on sunny days.

But I don’t worry so much anymore about what I’m called.

Family is more than just a name.

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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