Three months ago I decided to change my last name. I didn’t want a surname that had been passed down from man to man–I wanted one that gave full props to matriarchy. There aren’t enough things that do.
Kallas was my great-grandmother’s maiden name. It’s the oldest matrilineal name I could recover from my family tree. Patrilineal family names are patriarchal; they suck for women. Everyone wants a son to carry on the family name. I wanted to make my name matriarchal. Plus, Kallas means “good” in Greek.
I expected the name-changing process to be pretty straightforward; after all, newly married women change their last names all the time. Surely it wouldn’t be more than a matter of filling out a few forms. I went to Evanston’s city hall to find out what was involved.
The assistant city clerk I spoke to was very rude.
“Were you born here?” she snapped.
“Um, you mean in America?”
“No, in Evanston!”
“I was born in Indiana.”
“Well, you have to call Indiana then.” She stared intently at her computer, her body language saying that she was done with me.
I leaned into the periphery of her vision. “Excuse me,” I said. “How do I go about ‘calling Indiana’?” I could see that I was interrupting important official business: her screen was open to Hotmail.
“You need to get the forms to apply for a name change,” she said snippily.
“Couldn’t I get the same forms here then?” I was flipping her off inside my pocket. She turned away from her E-mail to examine me more closely. She looked as if she were sizing me up for an appropriate pigeonhole. Was I a dangerous felon trying to assume a new identity? A knocked-up 16-year-old redneck on her way to the altar?
None of the above. I’m 22, unmarried, not pregnant, never had so much as a speeding ticket or a high school detention. The law has nothing on me.
In the bureaucratic spirit of never doing what can be dropped on someone else’s desk, the assistant city clerk sent me to another office, called Vital Records. The name seemed vaguely ominous: I imagined they were going to take my blood pressure and pulse, estimate how much longer I was going to live, and then record it.
At the front desk there were no fewer than four signs announcing a rise in the price of death certificates: $6 as of March 1. Look after your loved ones, because the cost of dying is going up.
I told the clerk, a big woman who was humming along to a soul station, that I needed information on how to change my last name and that the woman upstairs had been very rude to me.
“Oh, girlfriend! You mean the city clerk’s office?” she whispered loudly.
I nodded. She shook her head knowingly, like she’d gotten attitude from them too. She didn’t scrutinize me the way the assistant city clerk had. “You probably do have to get the information from the state you were born in,” she explained to me. She rummaged through piles of paper looking for the number in Indiana that I needed to call. My spirits began to rise: this lady was actually willing to help me.
Eureka! She found the phone number and photocopied it for me.
“Thank you! Thank you!” I said. She laughed and wished me luck.
Too bad she gave me the wrong number and the wrong information.
“Thank you for calling the Indiana State Department of Health Vital Records Office. If you are not calling from a touch-tone phone and cannot call back using a touch-tone phone, please remain on the line. You may press the number for the option you want at any time during this message without hearing the entire message. If at any time during this message you need to hear it again, please press six.”
Four years later I got a human voice.
“Hi. I was just transferred to you from…somewhere, and I’m seeking information about changing my last name.”
“You need to get yourself a lawyer to represent you, file your request to the court, and appeal to the judge.”
“Whoa, wait–do I really need a lawyer? I’m at a page at the Indiana government Web site called Self-Service Legal Center, and it has these downloadable forms for name changes.”
“Oh. I don’t know anything about that, but you need to go to court and we need to issue you a new birth certificate.”
“I don’t understand. Do women who get married and take their husbands’ last names have to go through all this? Do they get new birth certificates?”
“What’s the difference? I just want to change my last name. Brides don’t need lawyers for that. I don’t want to change my birth certificate, I just want to change my last name.”
“Well, this is a little bit different.”
“You need to go through the procedure to get your birth certificate name changed.”
“Because what if you were somewhere where you needed to show your birth certificate for identification? You can’t have two different names!”
“But isn’t that what happens to women who take their husbands’ last names?”
“But this is different! You want to change your last name legally.”
“Don’t brides change their last names legally?”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t understand how this is different then.”
“I don’t know, miss. I just know it’s different.”
“OK, fine. Somehow this is different. Can you please, please tell me the first step I take in order to change my last name?”
“You have to file it with the court.”
“File what, and with what court?”
“Do I need to go to my city hall and file it?”
“Yes, that’s good.”
“I’ve already been to city hall, and they said to call Indiana. You’re Indiana.”
“OK, I’ll go to city hall. And then I’ll go crazy and kill myself. Thank you.”
Stymied, I did what I should have done in the first place: I sent an E-mail to my friend Dan, a lawyer.
To: Dan Johnson-Weinberger
Subject: my name!
do you know the first step i do to change my last name, do i have to have a lawyer (there’s on-line forms), and why the hell isn’t it the same easy procedure as for hausfraus who take their husbands’ last names?
To: Kristina Berta
Subject: Re: my name!
No lawyer needed but I will help. It is the same procedure. Cook County Circuit Court. Fill out a form. It’s in the Daley Center. I can take you there if you get lost. I need to fill out the same form! (I’m still legally Dan Johnson.)
To: Dan Johnson-Weinberger
Subject: Re: my name!
sweet! i’m sure i won’t get lost, but i’m probably going to the daley center on friday if you’d like to come. maybe they have group rates.
thanks for the info,
The name I was given at birth was Kristina Nikole Berta. One day I realized that every one of my three names was fundamentally male. Kristina: a variant of Christ with -ina tacked on as a feminizing afterthought. Nikole: Nick plus a different feminine suffix. And Berta is my father’s family name.
Mind you, I like Berta. My old gymnastics coach called me Tweety Berta, get it? My friends in high school called me Bert.
Berta is not a Greek name. My mom explained to me that my father’s people came from the mountains of Carpathia–same as Dracula. Cool.
My pops is as awesome as can be. He’d do anything for me. He’s already done everything for me. Changing my name has nothing to do with my not liking my father, or his last name, or his ancestors. This isn’t about my positive feelings for the Kallas family either. I never knew them; for all I know they were jerks. This is about women and identity. This is about cultural warfare against the patriarchy.
It’s also about my yiayia, which is Greek for grandma. Strictly speaking, yiayia was not a feminist. She had an arranged marriage followed by an arranged life of cooking, cleaning, sewing, child rearing, and patriarchal religion. But I don’t care what her resume says: if Mount Rushmore had been mine to design, yiayia’s head would be on it. She was four feet and ten inches of dynamite. Once she gave a mouse a fatal heart attack just by shouting at it. She also divorced my papou (grandfather) when she was 67 years old. I don’t know if she’d ever been in love.
Yiayia’s name was Asimina, my mom’s name is Katina, my name is Kristina. If I have a daughter, she’ll be called just Ina–an indivisibly female name.
To get to the Cook County Circuit Court in the Daley Center I had to pass through an airport-style security checkpoint, but when I triggered the metal detector, the security guard accepted my explanation that my dental retainer was responsible.
On the eighth floor I had a difficult conversation with a clerk about how an unmarried woman could change her name.
“I don’t know!” she yelled. “I am Divorce! This is Divorce! Go to that counter!”
A more civil man awaited me at the next window.
“How can I help you?”
“I want to change my last name.”
“How old are you?”
In three seconds he had a sheaf of forms spread out before me and was helpfully marking the places where I should fill in my present name and where I should fill in my future name.
“You mean I’m in the right place?”
“This is where I get my last name changed?”
“Even though I was born in Indiana?”
“How long have you lived in Cook County?”
“Almost four years.”
“I don’t want to change the name on my birth certificate.”
“You don’t have to.”
Was he putting me on? He wasn’t. I wanted to kiss him. While I filled out forms, he processed my debit card. There was a fee of $95 to have my court date published in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. I was also supposed to pay a court fee of $290, but he said there was a petition that might enable me to have it waived. He gave me more forms to fill out and bring back, one of which I needed to have notarized. Then he gave me a court date. I was to go before a judge on the 24th floor on Thursday, May 29. I left in a daze.
I stopped by Dan Johnson-Weinberger’s office. We talked about last names. He hyphenates his last name to represent both of his parents. I would probably do it that way too if I weren’t a lunatic. I hadn’t told my parents about this yet, which made me anxious.
I went home and made a mix CD for my best friend. One of the tracks I put on it was an old Greek song whose title translates as “Children of Piraeus.” I knew the lyrics by heart phonetically because I’d heard the song so often when I was little, on yiayia’s record player. I called my mom and asked her what the words meant.
“Let’s see,” she said, speaking over kitchen noises. “From my balcony I send one, two, three, and four kisses to the world. And then something like, I’d love to have one, two, three, and four boys, proud and fine, and when one day they grow up, they’ll be manly and strong for this port of Piraeus.”
“Mama, I want to change my last name.”
“That was my yiayia’s maiden name,” she said sadly.
“Mom,” I continued, “you know how I am. I have to do things sometimes, about the patriarchy and stuff.”
“I know how you are,” she said. “You know, the Kallas name is dead in our family. Not any more boys to carry it on, and my yiayia lost it when she married my papou.”
Later my mom would tell me about my father’s reaction to the news. She said he was silent for a moment, then turned slightly red and said, “I have a better name for her. Why doesn’t she change it to Kristina Dipshit?”
To be honest, if my yiayia’s mother’s maiden name were Papamihalakis, I might not have done this. Probably I’d have thanked my lucky stars for Berta and shut up. Then again, I might’ve combed through the family tree some more until I found a better-sounding matronymic. Or perhaps I’d have assumed my yiayia’s maiden name, Pappas. Or I could have just invented a last name, like Zoomer.
I wish I’d been given a name like Wilma Mankiller’s. She’s a Native American activist and that’s her real name. With a name like that I’d be unstoppable. Bring it on, patriarchy.
Greek Easter was coming up and it made me think of more reasons why I feel so averse to the patriarchy: Greek Orthodoxy.
Do you know much about the Greek Orthodox religion? Me neither. Neither do most Greek Orthodox people. Greeks are generally more concerned with their traditions, superstitions, holidays, and festivals than with reading the Bible and studying the lives of the saints. I say generally because I don’t want to piss off any genuinely pious Greeks. But the rest of you Greeks have to admit that the large percentage of the people in an Orthodox church wouldn’t know Paul from Judas.
What I do know about the Orthodox church is that aside from the introduction of electric light, it hasn’t changed a bit since 400 AD, especially in its attitudes toward women. There are no women priests, no altar girls, and no female voices raised in chant.
Granted, there are female saints. But the thing about them is that they all supposedly never had sex, or else they switched overnight from being prostitutes to supposedly never having sex again. Celibacy is vital to becoming a female saint. No one ever talks about how much sex the guy saints were or weren’t having, and no priest or Sunday school teacher I ever met has a word to say about the men who frequented prostitutes like Mary Magdalene.
The morning of May 29 I made it to the el in my fancy black heels without falling, but not without becoming an object of desire to a homeless guy who conjectured that I “play men like a fiddle,” suavely courted me with jerking-off gestures, and showed me his parole ID so I could appreciate the photo’s resemblance to Jimi Hendrix.
Finally the Purple Line train that would carry me to my new name arrived.
Downtown I met up with my homegirls Kate and Lori, who’d come to lend me moral support. Getting my forms processed and the court fee waived required multiple trips between the 7th, 8th, and 24th floors, plus lots of waiting in line. When my papers were finally in order the three of us sat in the front row of the courtroom waiting for Judge Dorothy Kinnaird to show. We decided I wasn’t going to swear on a Bible, in keeping with the principle of separation between church and state. Aside from a couple of lawyers sitting at those lawyer tables, the court was empty.
When Judge Kinnaird appeared, her first business was with one of the lawyers, whom she reprimanded for making a mess of his paperwork. My paperwork was immaculate and I wasn’t even a lawyer. For a fleeting moment I thought I was amazing. Then my number was called.
I didn’t have the option of turning down the Bible while being sworn in. I was told just to put my hand in the air while this nice man rattled off some do-you-solemnly-swear stuff. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to repeat it after him, so I just said “I do” when he was done. It may be the only time I’ll ever say that in a legally binding context.
Standing before Judge Kinnaird, I felt like Judgment Day had come. She loomed above me on her bench. The heavy woodwork, her stately robe, and the high ceiling overwhelmed me. Why was I doing this? Kallas was still some guy’s family name to begin with. Everything I’d ever been proud of doing I had done as a Berta. Yiayia would have thought I was crazy. My sister and brother were already mad at me; how was pops going to react when he found out I’d gone through with this? Would people who know me recognize my name in the future? Would having a Greek last name hurt my political career? Would I pursue a political career? Was I going to go to law school? Did I really want to move to New York City in a month and leave everyone I cared about and who cared about me? Was I going to hate Teach for America? Would I have children someday? Did I shut off my desk lamp before I left this morning?
“First thing, relax!” Judge Kinnaird said. It seemed nice of her to be so personable with me; that’s one asset I always thought women could bring to traditionally male realms like law and politics. I relaxed.
The judge asked me why I wanted to change my name. According to Lori and Kate, I delivered an emphatic denunciation of the patriarchy and a not-so-brief account of my ancestry. I made meaningful gestures with my hands and sometimes stood on my toes. I recall hearing laughter, for which Lori later took responsibility.
Judge Kinnaird betrayed no particular reaction to all this, but she looked me in the eye and gave me her full attention, which I appreciated.
When I finished speaking she apologetically told me that she had to ask me some “obnoxious” questions.
“Are you avoiding creditors?” she began.
“Are you avoiding children you have?”
“Avoiding student loans?”
“Do your parents know you’re doing this?”
“It doesn’t matter, I just wondered.” She smiled. I smiled back.
“Well, I can’t think of any reason why you shouldn’t do this.” She hit her gavel and I was Kristina Kallas.
I am Kristina Kallas.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Leslie Lammle.