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What’s in a name?

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12/09/2009

I have an odd name. My mom wanted something unique that couldn't be nicknamed. She was probably none-too-pleased when my dad almost immediately started called me "Niecy Poo-Poo." My parents had a friend who was an intern in a hospital and had access to all the names of patients who had been admitted. My mom asked him to make a note of all the "original" names (read "weird") he came across. He made her a list. I have the list tucked away in some baby book of mine somewhere. I wish I could find it so I could share with you how much worse my name could have been. But needless to say, as a youngster, and as a young adult, I was not fond of my name.

There were a few problems with it. Firstly, "Annice the Beast" rolled happily off many a school bully's tongue. And as we got older, "Anus" was the cruder version that could bring red to my cheeks and a ringing in my ears. And it was embarrassing when one of my aunts would introduce me as "Annice my Niece" which always made people giggle. My best friend was "Jenny." and my other friends were Michele," "Sarah," "Shelly," "Allison," "Kathy," "Molly," "Emily," "Nicole"... nothing radical. Just good, normal names. (Apparently my parents felt being into organic foods, no sugar and limited TV watching before their time was not enough of a statement.)

So back to that list of names. Mine was on it. Or rather a version of it. It was spelled, "a-n-i-c-e". My Grandfather "Israel/Isadore/Izzy" took one look at the spelling and said, "You can't spell it like that! You need another 'n'. Otherwise, she'll be called "a nice." And so, an "n" was added, so everyone would call me Annice pronounced "Ann-niece." But honestly, the only one in my youth that got it right was my mother. My dad called me the poo-poo thing and most other people called me "Uh-niece." I didn't really care, but it set my mom off like crazy. Her name is "Renee" pronounced "Re-knee" but she gets "Renay" all the time. I think it brings up some issues for her.

What’s in a name? photo

The birth name of our daughter from Ethiopia was difficult. It didn't help that we got two different spellings and no crystal clear pronunciation. We thought we were pronouncing it correctly, until my Ethiopian friend intervened— it was too late. At least it was too late for my husband. He had the wrong pronunciation seared into the depths of his engineer mind and he couldn't change it. He was very upset by this because I was making an impassioned push in the direction of keeping our daughter's birth name. My reasoning was that children of adoption, no matter how loving, wonderful, fabulous and good-looking their adoptive family might be, are suffering a huge loss. And with international adoption, EVERYTHING changes— the smells, the foods, the language, the topography, the faces— and often, names. This was one loss we could avoid. Something that could stay the same.

There was tons of back and forth. My husband kept saying the same thing over and over. "I am her dad. I can't pronounce her name!" Good point. So after much back and forth, we decided to sit down with the boys and go through a long list of Ethiopian names. They glommed on to "Uniqua" which is the hippo character in the Backyardigans. And although I love, love, love! their opening theme song, we gave them a big fat, "NO!" Then we saw the name "Kiya" which means "mine" and everyone agreed— the name, the sentiment, it all fit.

My husband had a lamb bought by my parents stuffed in his suitcase with the name "Kiya" sewn in hot pink lettering on its chest. I had a softie light pink blanket in mine with a satin "K" on it. We arrived in Ethiopia with her name frequently on our lips. Phone calls home were peppered with her name. And then we met her. We watched as she was kissed and held by the nannies. Her name called lovingly. Her birth name over and over and over. I started to have terrible regret and doubt. This became cemented when we met with our adoption team privately, and I asked, "How do you change a child's name? How do you introduce a new name?" The case worker looked at me and said, "In Ethiopia, our names are very important to us." She then had everyone in the room go around and share the significance of their names. She continued. "I love my name. Do you all love your names?" Everyone in the room nodded. Oh boy.

We left that meeting and I was in tears. We HAD to keep her name. I tried steamrolling the husband. I told him how insensitive he was being. He could learn to pronounce her name. How would he like it if his name was suddenly changed?! He said we'd talk about it later that evening. But I was a mess. And when I’m a mess I can be, um, grumpy. There was much grumpiness I tell you.

That evening discussion stretched into three evenings. I kept apologizing to the cheery couple whose room shared a plywood wall with us. I was passionate and emotional and the husband was practical. Normally a trait of his I appreciate, but not in this case. I felt like I couldn't get him to understand. We were at a stand-off. This, in addition to all that was happening, was incredibly stressful. We needed help.

Help appeared innocently enough. The man accompanying all the families was on the bus waiting for everyone to board. I got on the bus and said, "I'm having a problem." This man is used to fielding all sorts of stuff. I was hoping he could guide us somehow. I explained the situation in way too much detail. He looked at me. He shrugged. He said,” So? call her..." and he uttered her name. A shortened version that we had overheard her nannies, the social workers and the cooks calling her. And the guy I was talking to! But it had never clicked until then. This name WAS her name! And so there it was.

I call her by both names. So do the boys. It's natural. Her birth certificate will have the shortened version to avoid mispronunciation— Fray. I like that we have the lamb and the blanket so our daughter can know the process we went through to get to where we did with her name. It's unique (but not Uniqua) and beautiful. And her. And for the record, if I had been a boy, my name would have been Seth.

Her full name (original birth name) was Frehiwot Tessema and we changed it to Fray Tessema. Frehiwot means seed of life and fray means seed. Tessema is the middle name, but was originally her last name. All children have their birth father's first name as a last name in Ethiopia.

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