(For a few months now I have been reading about and researching my ancestors, the women and men who came before me and passed down to me my name, my ethnic identity, my DNA, and of course my faith. Here’s a sample chapter from the new book which I’m – tentatively – calling “Letter to My Grandchildren.”)
Many of the people I knew when I was growing up had odd-sounding names. Not distinguished sounding at all, like I wanted them to be. The names were slightly embarrassing, I thought, as though in a previous life I had grown up with much better people, maybe in a much higher social class.
There wasn’t a Henry David Thoreau in the bunch. Or a Harriet Beecher Stowe. Those names and a lot of others like them always sounded remarkable to me, like you’d want to know them and read their books and be like them.
Many of the odd-sounding names I heard belonged to my great aunts. There was Alice and Lena and Effie and even Trina. My grandmother was Minnie, for heaven’s sake.
Who names someone Minnie, unless it’s the name of a cartoon mouse?
These were wonderful people, don’t get me wrong. They were unfailingly loving and tender toward me, and they often demonstrated their love and tenderness by preparing wonderful meals, usually at family picnics.
One of my great aunts – I think it was Aunt Effie – even slipped me a five dollar bill at my wedding reception and told me to have a nice breakfast “in the morning” – back when five dollars could buy a nice breakfast for two people. I will never forget that.
But it wasn’t only the women in my family. Even some of the men had odd-sounding names. My grandfather, for example, was Jay. That’s right. Jay Brouwer. No middle name. He was just Jay and never anything other than that.
I loved him, and he loved me. He was about as proud of me as a grandfather could be, I could feel it. But that name. What famous author – or senator, or business leader, for that matter – has ever had a name like that? David Foster Wallace – now there’s a name! And how about Louisa May Alcott? Three names sound better than two.
But Jay Brouwer?
I felt a little short changed, to be honest, that I was not descended from a better class of people.
So, for a lot of years I wondered about those names, and felt embarrassed about them, until I started reading and doing some research about my family.
What I found was not at all what I expected.
Turns out that those names I didn’t like were often not the names their parents gave to them. When they were born, they had one name, and then – some time later – that name became something different. And the change, in my opinion, was not always for the better. At one time Alice had been Antje, for example. Effie had been Aafke. Trina had been Trientje. And so on.
My grandmother Minnie had been given the name Jacomina when she was born. And Jacomina may not sound all that distinguished, but at least it was interesting. I had never known anyone named Jacomina before, and so I found that I wanted to know more. What happened? How in the world did Jacomina become Minnie?
Somehow I came to believe that the name-switching occurred during immigration. Poor, unsuspecting immigrants arrived on ships, I thought, and uncaring officials at Ellis Island (where most, but not all, of them arrived) changed the names of the new arrivals to make them sound more American, and therefore less ethnic, and less interesting.
My grandmother never said as much, I should point out, but I detected something in her stories about coming to the U.S. that seemed to confirm this version of events. She used to tell me, for example, about being taunted on the playground by classmates who made fun of her Dutch language and her Dutch clothes and everything about her that seemed weird and foreign to them.
I just assumed that the name change was more of the same – the indignity of being an immigrant, a stranger in a strange land, blah, blah, blah. But my reading and research turned up a much different story, one I think you should know. It touches me deeply, as so much of what I found touches me.
Immigration officials did not change the names of those who were arriving. Most of the time they simply copied the names of those onboard from the ship’s manifest. And rather than stumbling over the Antjes and Aafkes and Trientjes, it turns out that many of the Ellis Island inspectors where themselves foreign-born. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which was the name at the time, immigration inspectors spoke an average of three languages. (I can barely speak one.)
What I discovered was that workers were assigned to inspect immigrants based on the languages they spoke, and if communication was difficult, interpreters (often from immigrant aid societies) were readily available. Most of these societies had offices in the Great Hall of the main Ellis Island building, a few steps from where those arrival interviews were taking place.
So, if the name changes weren’t a cruel introduction to life in the U.S., as I had always assumed, then what happened? Well, it appears that most of the immigrants changed their own names … before they left. Why? Who knows, but most likely to get ready for assimilation, to prepare themselves for what must have been the biggest, most difficult transition of their lives. While they were saying goodbye to a country most of them would never see again, they were making the changes necessary to adapt and survive in a new country. They changed the names their parents had given to them. Think about that.
As I type this, I feel a sudden rush of tears. Rather than being embarrassed by these people, I find myself proud to be descended from them. I don’t know if I would have had the courage to do what most of them did. I have more to tell you (in other chapters of this book) about their courage and bravery and strength, but for now let me just say that having a grandmother named Minnie makes me prouder than you will ever know.
I wish I had told her this when she was alive. I wish I could say thank you for all she did to prepare the way – to prepare the way for me. And for you.
(Photo: Let’s call this “Arrival at Ellis Island.” Two Dutch children – note the wooden shoes! – are clutching their new ID papers and looking as though they might cry at any moment.)