Recently, I gave a presentation at my children’s school. Many students know that my two children who attend there lost their father last summer. They are aware that our family doesn’t look like theirs. It is always a relief to enter a group of people with whom I don’t need to explain the complexities of our situation.
However, as I prepared for my presentation, I got stuck on one basic question: How do I introduce myself? Children are accustomed to the convention of referring to adults as Mr. So-and-So or Miss Whatshername. It wouldn’t make sense to introduce myself in an all-school assembly simply as “Clarissa.” But can I still call myself “Mrs. Moll” if Rob is no longer alive? I’m not really single and am too old to be a Miss. Should I be a Ms.? If I’m not Rob’s wife, who am I?
When Rob and I got married, we talked a lot about naming. I loved my maiden name Band. It was simple and easy to pronounce. My last name carried the history of my family, a story that was poised to fade away as the only grandchildren who bore its name were girls. A German Ashkenazi Jewish surname, Band had already been snuffed out across Europe during World War II. Someday, I reasoned, the four Band granddaughters would marry and take other names. Again Band would be gone. Rob encouraged me to keep my maiden name, so I simply added his to the end. It took me almost a year to change all of my documents. Four names — my first, middle and two surnames — was a mouthful, but I felt it clearly articulated who I was.
After almost 20 years, I smile to think of how marriage shaped my identity. About a year ago, I asked Rob what he thought of me simplifying my name, cutting out my middle and maiden names and simply being “Clarissa Moll.” Through the years, Rob and I had created a family together and defined what it meant for us to be Molls, pulling parts of my story and his story together and weaving them into our own unique interpretation of the surname. Marriage does this so beautifully — taking two family lines and merging them into something new. A lover of minimalism, my long name now felt clunky. Too many words. Too many descriptors. I was ready, for the first time, to be simple. To be just this thing Rob and I had built together.
Over the last year, I began experimenting with shortening my name. Instead of initialling my daughter’s homework with “CCBM” I scrawled a simple “CM” in the right hand corner. When a form asked for a middle initial, I didn’t always include one. I liked how that looked. The idea grew on me and, while I knew it would take some extra paperwork, I liked the idea enough to consider moving forward with it. After Rob’s death though, I don’t know where I’d start. Some days, none of my names — not even my first name — feels like me anymore. Who am I?
Now that Rob has died, I’m not sure what to call myself. I can’t go back to my maiden name. I’m not that person anymore. Already I receive mail addressed to Ms. Clarissa Moll. I don’t like the Ms. It lacks that all important “r.” I still like Mrs. Moll best. My married name feels safe and familiar. It projects the authority I summoned in the classroom for years. It speaks to me of Rob and home and belonging.
But Rob’s not here any more. In what way do we still belong to each other? I became a Moll because I married Rob. Am I no longer one now? What about the Molls we made together? Who are all of us now without him? If names mean belonging, where do I belong? Without Rob, who am I? Sometimes these questions of identity swirl around and make me feel lonely and without a home. These questions make me miss Rob so much. I miss the me whose identity was woven together with his.
I love the moment in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when Alice meets the Caterpillar. Utterly befuddled at her new predicament, Alice looks frantically around her trying to get her bearings. Only moments earlier she was a little girl in a quiet house on a boring day. Now everything is frighteningly different.
“Who are you?” the Caterpillar inquires with a sour face. “I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then,” Alice replies. I can hear the bewilderment in her voice. Rob’s death threw me down the crazy rabbit hole of grief and widowhood. As I emerge into my new life without him, I’m not sure who I am either.
We attach so much to names. They root us to our past and orient us in our present. Our names are so much a part of our identity that we bristle when someone mispronounces them. We find kinship when our names match someone else’s. Our names tell us who we are. I’ve wrestled with a way to end this post, and I can’t think of any. I want to wrap it up neatly and tell you I’ve figured something out. But I haven’t. The thought that Rob’s death has changed me so deeply makes me sad and angry and frustrated. I don’t want another name. I liked who I was. I just want to be Rob’s wife.
I introduced myself at the all-school assembly as Mrs. Moll. When I look in the mirror, that’s still who I see.