Marriage, in its truest sense, is a partnership of equals, with neither exercising dominion over the other, but, rather, with each encouraging and assisting the other in whatever responsibilities and aspirations he or she might have. Gordon B. Hinckley
A good marriage is one which allows for change and growth in the individuals and in the way they express their love. Pearl S. Buck
Two photographs of two boats hang side by side in Simplicity’s living room. One photograph was taken in Michigan by Don. The other I took on a trip to China. Both of our photographs have captured two simple rowboats side by side.
The symbolism of two boats is integral to our story. After Don and I decided to marry, the decision presented to many women at marriage came to rest heavily on my heart. Would I take Don’s name, keep my own, or create yet a new name? Suddenly I found my identity at stake. Because I was professionally known and published with my current name from a previous marriage, there was a justifiable reason to keep it as it was. In the same breath, this name also reflected a previous relationship, a previous life that was no longer mine.
My heart experienced a sense of loss while thinking about this. To change one’s name is a big deal, requiring volumes of paperwork, re-introducing yourself, and paying attention to the many ways your new name impacts both the formal and informal parts of a life. One must remember who knows you by what name or adding ‘formerly’ and then offering your old name. Exhausting work. All the while, adjusting to the present you with a brand spanking new name. As I sat with this decision, it became obvious that to let go of my previous married name was a way of moving forward.
With one name eliminated, the choices before me were taking Don’s last name of Mendenhall, truly a beautiful name in and of itself, or create my own unique name. I was also very aware that I was resistant to go with the accepted pattern of a woman taking her husband’s name. Looking through my genealogy, I found several options to consider. Merrick became my favorite. I could become Susan Merrick or return to my maiden name, although I felt ready for something new. Don was most sympathetic to my distress over this, agreeing that men have no clue to the identity struggle and hassle in updating records and accounts that a name change presents for women. Eager to be helpful and supportive, he suggested that I might also wish to give thought to being a one name person, like Cher or Prince or Pink. “You could pull this off,” he said, which gave me confidence to give this more serious thought. If I did become a one name person, what one name would sum me up?
With a love of water and an easy-going nature, I settled on the name River. My enthusiasm to share this epiphany happened over a lunch that included my daughter and a few of her high school girlfriends. To get them all on board, I laid out my dilemma. Must admit that I was also attempting to offer alternatives or at least an awareness of this quandary for women, one that they themselves would likely face someday. At just the right moment, with a deep pause to give even further drama, I spoke my one word name. River. My young tablemates smiled courteously. They nodded in agreement that surely that was a possible name given all that I had explained. My daughter, a ‘speak it like it is’ kind of gal, allowed for a polite silence and then blurted, “Mom, if we or anyone else were to call you River, it would sound like we were calling the family dog.”
It stung at first, but I had to admit that there was truth to her words. The group reaction also accompanied my other questions about the name River. Was it representative of how I wished to live my life? Was it a name worthy of all the legal hoop jumping to make it happen? In moments, I decided that River was not going to be my new name. But Mendenhall was still not convincing either. My lawyer had suggested that too many complications existed if I went the route of Susan Merrick. I remained uncertain for several more weeks, delaying our marriage license because I had not yet named who I was to be called in this relationship. I was a woman without a name. Remembering how long and difficult it was to choose the names of my children, this was similar and yet seemingly more complex. Why was this so difficult?
One afternoon Don and I settled by the shores of Lake Wingra to write our marriage vows. A man in a yellow kayak paddled by and shortly a woman in her own yellow kayak came into sight. It was obvious that they were together, going toward the same destination, but had given each other space and autonomy by being in separate boats. Suddenly, as if touched by a magic wand complete with fairy dust, glitter and sparkle, I knew what to do. The answer was clear as a bell and I felt confident. I would become Susan Mendenhall and I would craft another name, one that was original and unique to me. As I shared this awareness with Don, we both started playing with words and names. The moment he said, JAZZ, I knew that was the one. Jazz is filled with energy, excitement, creativity, dance, and independence. It is so alive and in the moment. This was exactly the way I felt in this relationship, in this season of life. Jazz is the name Don, my grandchildren, and several others call me. Jazz matches the style of my artwork and quickly became my artist name. Such delight happens each time I hear it spoken. The name Jazz awakens me to myself.
The two photographs on our wall speak to this defining moment in our story. They recall the day we sat on the shores of Lake Wingra seeing two identical kayaks, but experienced it as celebrating our independence and mutual journey. The two boats remind us to respect the opportunity to grow as individuals while supported by the other. Over the years, we have come to tell the story in these photographs by this simple phrase, “You don’t have to be in the same boat to journey together.” Nineteen years and counting. It has worked well for us.