What’s in a Name?
My name is Victoria and it has never felt right to me.
Not when I was a kid and my friends called me Vic or Vicki, nor when my family called me Vikinka or Viktorka or any derivative of my more formal moniker.
Right around when I hit college, people stopped calling me by nicknames entirely and Victoria was settled on for good. While it was definitely more consistent, it still felt neither here nor there.
It’s funny, even after the long-form “Victoria” became pretty much the only version of my name people used, there was a whole cadre of people who just always got my name wrong. For reasons I can’t explain, a lot of folks have simply called me Veronica – even after I’ve corrected them numerous times.
They say, “Right, right, it’s Victoria – of course. I’m sorry Veronica.”
Or maybe not so much.
About a year ago, my mother made an illuminating admission to me. She told me how much she hadn’t wanted to name me Victoria at all. How after I was born, she could hardly even say my name. And when she did, no matter how hard she tried, no matter how many ways – Vic-toria, Vic-tor-i-a, Vic-tor-ia – the name always tripped out over her tongue tinged with a note of bitterness.
I’d had a brother named Victor, you see. He’d died of the flu the year before I was born. So, back when I was a baby, and my mom’s suffering was still so fresh, my name was simply too painful for her to say.
It may seem strange that my mom gave me the name Victoria in the first place – that perhaps it was some form of masochism on her part. Because really, couldn’t she have given me another name?
My mother said she’d wanted to give me an Italian name, actually. After fleeing communist Czechoslovakia, she’d spent several months in an Italian refugee camp. Her belly felt my first kick in the countryside near Positano, and my other brother, John – eight years old at the time, had his baptism in Rome. She made many friends there while she waited for permission to come to America. Italy was the first place that made my mom smile after Victor’s death.
And Italy was her stepping stone to America.
My mother had spent most of her life dreaming about a life in America. But not merely for the usual reasons – freedom of speech and expression, freedom to travel, social mobility, freedom from random imprisonment and other forms of persecution, etc. My mother’s reasons were more personal.
America was where my mother’s parents, Bedriska and Victor lived. They’d fled Czechoslovakia when my mom was only six and my mother had spent twenty years pining for them. She’d risked her life and her surviving children’s – mine (in utero) and John’s – to escape from behind the Iron Curtain.
My mother wanted desperately to have a relationship with her parents. They had loomed so large, for so long in her imagination. She had envisaged what it would be like baking kolacky with her mother, shopping for a dress, just being held by her.
She wondered what her father’s muscular hands might look like opening a difficult jar of pickles, or feel like if he were to stroke her hair. Both of my grandparents were physically imposing – my grandfather, an Olympic hockey player, was built like a Sherman tank. Victor was a name that suited him very well. My grandmother, tall and beautiful, could have been Greta Garbo’s sister. Bedriska – Fredericka in English – was a name she owned.
In those first few, heady months they were back together, my mother was starstruck by her parents. Everything they said held tremendous weight. My mother had come from a communist country and out of fear had hidden her opinions all of her life. And here, in this new, free country, her parents had opinions about everything and shared them willy-nilly. They talked about which politicians they preferred, their plans for the future, things they liked and didn’t like about their adopted country…
And the names they wanted my mother to bestow upon her unborn child.
My grandparents were determined that my mom should name me after her sisters, Victoria (named after my grandfather) and Helen. At the time, Victoria and Helen were still stuck behind the Iron Curtain, and my grandparents – perhaps – felt an homage to them was in order. My grandmother and grandfather had never met my deceased brother and I don’t think it occurred to them that the similarities between Victor and Victoria would cause my mom such grief.
And at the time, my mother didn’t have it in her to speak up for herself. So, reluctantly, with a forced smile, she agreed to name me Victoria Helen.
My mom’s story of how I came to be “Victoria” explains a lot, especially in terms of my own ambivalence towards my name. Honestly, even now when people ask me how I prefer to be addressed – whether by Victoria or Vic or Vicki – my inner voice always answers, “I don’t really care – pick one.” Then I say out loud, “Victoria is fine.”
And while name issues have played a pretty insignificant role in my life, I do find it interesting how my mother’s unspoken feelings about my name seem to have affected my own perceptions about what I am called. Victoria has always felt like a name that was thrust upon me instead of given me.
And I think about how differently I feel about the names of people who are dear to me. My husband, Jack, my children.
I remember seeing my babies’ names for the first time, written down on an official document at the hospital shortly after I gave birth. It was a powerful experience to behold their names in black and white. It made them real. I remember my husband running his fingers over our son’s name and saying it aloud with tears in his eyes.
Our daughters’ names felt no less significant. We’d spent months going back and forth about what to call them. With each of our children, we waited until they were born and we’d looked into their murky eyes before deciding which name to give them. Naturally, we’d narrowed it down to two possibilities for each sex, but we wanted to see our babies first – just to make sure we were making the right choice.
And each time it was so clear.
They could have had no other names.
It just makes me ache that my mother was denied that experience. That my name is a forever reminder of her greatest heartbreak – my brother’s death, instead of her greatest triumph – her courageous escape from Czechoslovakia.
And I hope that being able to choose her own American name – even if it was a direct translation of her Czech name – was in some way a consolation. Georgiana is her American name. And she does love it. Jirina, her Czech name, only exists for her now in the old country, on her old documents, on a list of Czech political prisoners from the 1950s and 60s. It endures in the abstract for my mother, like an old address.
As for my name, I still don’t really care much. It means something, I suppose, when I see Victoria Dougherty written on the cover of my novel, but I might use a different name when I publish in the Young Adult category next year.
If I do, perhaps I should ask my mother to give me a nom de plume. Something Italian.