I’d always hated my name. When I was fourteen, I found a book in the library called “The History of Names.” I looked up my given name, Margaret, and was stunned by its derivations. Pages and pages of them, well over 100 versions, often three variations of it for a single country including nicknames like the one I got stuck with…Peggy.
I ran my finger down the endless list until one of them, Greta, stopped me cold. It was a perfect switch: it’s used in England, Sweden, and Germany (a nod to Dad); it was a natural nickname for Margaret (especially if spelled Margret); it ended in “a,” making it feel exotic; with my last name, Goss, it was alliteration and, as for personal stationery, this was a name with graphic sex appeal!
Cradling the book in my hands, leaning back in contentment, my attention strayed to the cover of the book at the top of that day’s heap: a smoldering photograph of Greta Garbo. That did it. I’d found the right answer to my name game. I’d tapped utopia.
Walking home, I thought about how I was going to tell my mother. We’re talking a woman who went wild over every Margaret or Peggy she’d ever met. We’re talking a woman with roots in Massachusetts, a state where they sing “Peg ‘O My Heart” by their first birthday. We’re talking a woman who graduated from college with a class composed entirely of Margarets nicknamed Peggy. This meant I grew up surrounded by a legion of women I called “Aunt Peggy” – which didn’t even include numerous blood relations named Margaret (also called Peggy). Not a Megan, Marge, Maggie or Margo in the bunch. The walk home was uphill. A steep one. I grew less confident with every step.
I strolled in the kitchen door, dropped my books, and as casually as I could announced my news. Without even turning from the pot she stirred, my mother’s answer was, “No.” “Why not?” I pleaded to her opaque reply, “It sounds too foreign.”
And that was the end of the issues, until I finished school, left home, and got my first real job. As my new boss explained it, being Jewish, the name Peggy sounded to him like the name Yentl would sound to me. The timing of his wave-of-the-hand-declaration, “I hate it. It goes.” was good. It was the permiso by proxy I needed to ponder all that I still wasn’t comfortable agreeing with, yet still didn’t feel entitled to change. By the end of the work day I was Margaret and Peggy had been tossed into the nearest trashcan never to be used by me again.
Fast forward and the Peggy plague has spread. I’ve now got a sister-in-law named Margaret (nicknamed Peggy) and a sister in-law-with a sister named Margaret (also a Peggy). On them, the name is lovely. On me (the fifth in a line of six siblings) it still felt like a title that was only a head turner at family reunions. I was the invisible woman with the too visible name.
Then one day, I ran out of business cards. As I waited my turn on line at the printer, it dawned on me that I could find no reason to reprint my misnomer. In an epiphany charged moment, I finally left the land of Peggy forever by changing the name on my order to Greta, the name I still coveted. (Note: I kept Margaret as my legal name because now that I’m called Greta, I’m able to revel in dual identities by seeing my statelier version, Margaret, on formal documents.) I boldly ordered stationery along with the cards, and when everything was complete, I mailed out hand written notes on the stationery to announce my tailored appellation. Then, I waited for the knives…
Some siblings, cousins and friends never missed a beat, being both positive and charmed by the evolution of my name. “I love it.” “It suits you.” and “Margaret is a beautiful name, but Greta is more you.” I even heard, “I never liked Peggy or Margaret. Neither one seemed you.” Other people weren’t so sure. Some, downright prickly. Apparently my not liking my name was no reason to change it. “After all,” as one unsolicited acquaintance said, “you’re not famous.”
When you change your name, I learned, you have to be prepared to put in some work to own the prize you fought so hard to win. If you want to be called something new, you’d better have the discipline to use it yourself or, what’s the point; no one else will. Perhaps you try and there are some stragglers who still don’t get it. Design some stationery with your name blazing a trail across the top and then use it to send flattering notes to the still conflicted and confused. If that doesn’t work, be patient. Some people have a reason for not getting certain things right that has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. Don’t hang by your thumbs waiting for their approval. You never needed it.
I’ve been Greta for years now, so it feels even better having aged a bit. When I sign my name, it’s with a flourish. When I extend my arm to introduce myself, a natural confidence flows through my handshake and it makes me smile.
Now, when I hear people blithely dismiss the pronunciation of their name by others with “Whatever. It doesn’t matter.” I think…You don’t know what you’re missing.
Greta Goss is an interior designer and writer found at gretagoss.com. She’s been seen or heard in The New York Times, More, Metropolitan Home, New York Spaces, NJ monthly and NJ Savvy among others. Her children’s names are Oliver Tennyson Conroy and Anastasia Scott Conroy (though she prefers her nickname “Anna”).