Keeping the Tradition Alive: 150+ Years of Ursula and Mildred
Ursula Amatrudo-Roman is a preschool teacher and New York City native. Her rare name — given to fewer than 100 baby girls each year over the past three decades — follows a matrilineal pattern established over a century ago.
We sat down with Ursula to discuss the family tradition and her experience with the name.
Can you explain the naming tradition in your family?
I was always acutely aware that my name was different — nobody else had it and it took people aback. But it’s not like my mom just picked a cool, below-the-Top-100 name.
We have documentation starting in the mid-to-late 1800s, back in Italy, when my great-great-grandmother was named Ursula [pictured above]. She had a daughter who was actually named Carmelina. But Carmelina came to America and she changed her name to Mildred to be more American.
When Carmelina had her own daughter, she was like, “You know what? In Italian culture we name male babies after family all the time — especially after our fathers and fathers-in-law. I’m going to name this baby after my mother.” So she named the baby Ursula.
My grandmother Ursula wasn’t going to keep the tradition. She named her first daughter Gloria. But she had my mother ten years later and said, “Let’s continue the tradition — her name is going to be Mildred.”
It was impressed upon my mother from a young age — “You are the last Mildred of several Mildreds, and one day you can have a daughter and name her Ursula.” But when my mother was pregnant with me, she had a few other names — interesting names like Bronwen, Fallon, and Samantha. She wasn’t sure, but one day was like, “Why am I going crazy looking for all these unique names when I have such a unique name with a rich backstory at my disposal?” And she named me Ursula.
Now I’m the last one at the end of the tradition, and I don’t have children yet, but maybe in the next couple of years. I’ll have to make a decision. It was so instilled in me as a child, I used to name my baby dolls Mildred or Milly.
Do you feel like you have to continue this tradition if you have a daughter?
My husband and I have discussed this. Sometimes I feel like this would be such a cool thing to keep going. But other times I’m not sure. It’s the Mildred for me — it’s a little harsh. Mildred Roman would be a very strong name. Not really my style, particularly.
I lean more towards putting an inventive spin on this tradition. Someone has already changed from Carmelina to Mildred. What if we update it? What if we went with Emilia and called her Milly, or even just Milly? It’s a decision I’m not going to make or fully know how I feel about until it’s time for me to name a child.
It’s something I toy with. Keeping the tradition, amending the tradition, or parting with this tradition — then I’d be the Ursula to kill it.
What would that be like for you to be the one to end the tradition? Does the fact that your grandmother made the choice not to name her oldest daughter Mildred relieve you of some of the pressure?
Probably! I feel like if I have a daughter maybe two years from now and I don’t name her Mildred or Emilia, I would be like, “You know, Grandma didn’t name the first one Milly either.” There’s still the possibility. That wouldn’t be such a big deal.
I don’t feel like my mom is expecting it either. She even told me, “I was throwing other names at your grandmother when I was pregnant with you, and one day I just sat her down and said, “You know what, I’m going to name her Ursula.”
Do you change middle names with this tradition?
My mother and my grandmother [pictured above] actually don’t have middle names. I don’t think anyone much past that would have had a middle name either. I have the middle name Marie, after my father’s mother because he thought she’d be jealous. It was a point of contention between my parents when naming me. My dad said, “Well if we’re going to honor your mother, we need to throw in my mother.”
My Nana used to tell people my name was Marie! I remember going to functions with her when she would introduce me to her friends and say, “This is Ursula Marie — we call her Marie.”
That leads me to the thought process of if we name our daughter Mildred, does she have to carry my mother-in-law’s name too? She’d be Mildred Estrella Roman. That’s a mouthful!
Do you have siblings?
I have two siblings. My brother was also subject to a family name. In most Italian American families — it’s a very patriarchal tradition, I’ll say — when you marry into a family and have a son, you name him after your father-in-law. My brother is named after our paternal grandfather — he’s Emmanuel Kenneth, but he goes by Manny. He’s the youngest child. My sister is in the middle and I guess she’s the only child my mom got to name without an expectation. My brother and I joke that our sister got to have all the keychains since they named her Victoria.
Oh! I’m surprised she’s Victoria, given the other names your mom had on the list for you.
Yes! Through the line of family chatting, I heard my mom [pictured below, with Ursula] wanted to name my sister Emma. My Grandma Ursula told her she couldn’t name the baby Emma — it wasn’t long enough a name — and she suggested Victoria. But Emma and Victoria were some of the more common names in 1994.
They’re Vicki and Manny, and I guess to give me a nickname too, my mom came up with Ursi. She was like, “Ursi, Vicki, Manny.” Okay, Mom.
What did you think about being named Ursula growing up?
When I was a child, I had a real Sea Witch complex. The Little Mermaid came out in 1989 and I was born in 1993. When I started preschool, I’d hear, “You’re Ursula the Sea Witch.” It was a thing.
I have a memory that did me in, that sent me into an I-don’t-like-my-name phase. Somebody got me a bath towel at the Disney store with Ariel on it. We took it to the store to get it personalized and my mom said she wanted it to say Ursula on it. The store clerk said, “That’s the villain in the story — Ariel is the princess.” My mom had to say, “No, my daughter is Ursula.” I wasn’t embarrassed, but I didn’t know how to feel. I was maybe five or six at the time and I realized my name is always the Sea Witch.
It was bad timing with the Sea Witch! I think that’s the reason many people haven’t embraced Ursula today, because otherwise it’s such a cool name.
So many other villains are given names like Hades and Maleficent and Cruella de Vil. I think it did the name in. It’s a testament to the staying power of The Little Mermaid. I’m the teacher now, and my preschoolers are still watching this movie.
There’s this new show on Hulu, Only Murders in the Building. The characters live in this apartment building and the mailroom lady is named Ursula. Whenever I hear it, I perk up. But they make Sea Witch jokes about her!
Was your mom aware of the movie connection when naming you?
My mom was vaguely aware. She had some nieces and nephews who had watched the film. But she wrote it off as a stupid kids’ movie, for lack of a better term. She was basically like, “That movie came out in the ‘80s — Ursula’s not going to watch it!” Now it’s with me for the rest of my life.
[Ursula pictured below with her grandmother Ursula]
What was your journey of coming to appreciate your name?
After a while, I started to get some cool compliments on my name. I also really value that nobody else has it, so now I’m really territorial about Ursula. I got an Ursula the Sea Witch mug because it has my name on it. I don’t know who else would be buying this mug, other than me. When I was a junior in college, I had it in my dorm room, and I broke it! I was devastated. It was the only thing I’d ever found with my name on it. My aunt bought another one for me and now I have an Ursula mug collection.
The Sea Witch thing is old for me now. Ursula is my name. People tell me all the time, “You’re the only Ursula I know.” And there’s just something about the letter U. When I teach it at school, I’m like, “That’s my letter!” Someone once pointed out that even when I print the letter U, I write it in cursive. It’s deeply rooted in my psyche that the U is special.
Do you have other names that you like? Would naming a daughter Mildred or Milly affect the names you’d choose for subsequent children?
It might! I tend to lean towards color names — I love Violet and Scarlett. I had a student named Pearl once and I loved it, but I don’t think we could pull it off. The name Emilia really hit me one day as a good way to throw in a new name but add some tradition.
Ironically, I love the name Ariella. But I just can’t. An Ursula can’t have an Ariella! At that point I’m asking for it.
On the boys’ end, I really love the name Leo. Ezra as well. Alexander is a little popular, but I like the nickname Xander. I always say it’s going to take me more than nine months to name a baby.
How would you feel about having a potential granddaughter named Ursula?
So cool! I can’t imagine that anyone would call her Ursula the Sea Witch, but never say never. Being in early childhood education, I view it like this: I experienced internalized pressure to name my child Mildred, so I’m like, “would I want to impose name pressure on my children? Is this something I don’t tell them about? Is this something I tell them when they’re, say, ten, instead of going to Kindergarten?”
But if I were to continue the tradition, it would be cool to see it continued again. I do feel that eventually it might die off, but who knows? It’s been kicking for quite a while.
Thank you so much, Ursula!
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