The event of receiving our names is one of life’s great lotteries. These identifying labels that accompany us through time are such an important part of who we are and yet, they come to us in a way that is completely out of our control. How much do our names shape who we become? Do they shape us or do we shape them? Ernest Finkelmeyer, Tabitha Gray, Cindy Little, Herbert Strange – what might names imply before we even meet a person? Nothing, ideally, but let’s face it, we all make assumptions and find ourselves shocked when an Ernest Finkelmeyer turns out to be un-bespectacled and charismatic. The truth is, I’m a lot less interested in judgments by others than I am about how our feelings about our own names make us see ourselves.
I hated my name as a child. It felt long, cumbersome and most of all, different. Growing up in Norman, Oklahoma, I was surrounded by folks with names like Kelly, Jamie, Amy and Jake. And to make matters worse, those nice first names were followed by perfectly normal last names like Miller, Moore, and Anderson. I didn’t care all that much when folks made fun of my name, or even when they butchered its pronunciation, but I was uncomfortable with the way my name made me feel. Clunky, conspicuous, unusual.
My mom (who was of German descent) decided to call me Yolanda because she wanted a very “American” name to go with my father’s very Greek one. She admired Martin Luther King and his daughter’s name was Yolanda, so that seemed to fit the bill for her. In a funny twist, I learned when searching baby names for my own daughter that “Yolanda” is actually Greek in origin. Oh well, nice try. Sometimes rightness happens accidentally.
When I was about 22, my long-time teacher and mentor, Alice Chalifoux, suggested that I begin using my middle name as a first name and call myself Eve Kondonassis. I really like my middle name, but by then, I was already myself and Yolanda had come to suit me. I find it amusing when people ask me if Yolanda Kondonassis is just my “stage name.” I’m always tempted to say, “Yes, actually. My real name is Tammy.”
Looking back now, I am grateful for my name. It forced me to come to terms with the idea of “different” and what that meant in a fairly homogeneous environment. I grew fierce about being who I was, and as it turned out, who I was was a little different anyway.
My friends call me Yo, my students call me YK, my husband calls me Sweetie and my daughter calls me Mom. All good names that fit. I wouldn’t change a thing.