When I was a young teenager, I thought my name was too plain. Too Jewish. Too boring.
I dreamed of being someone different. Someone more exotic, less ethnic, more exciting.
With each new crush, I’d practice writing my name in big bubbly cursive letters with the last name of my latest fantasy boyfriend. I loved when his name had the letter i in it, so I could dot it with a perfect little heart.
When I got engaged many years later, I’d become more comfortable with my name and decided I’d keep it. Until, that is, I stood hand in hand with my fiance’ under the tent where we’d be married the next day. The sky was dark and the stars were bright. “It’s really important to me,” he whispered in my ear. “I want you to be a McGonagle.” McGonagle was a whole different kind of ethnic and it didn’t have any i’s in it to dot with a heart. But this was my soon to be husband staring deeply into my eyes, making a seemingly simple request. “Of course,” I cooed, “if it’ll make you happy, I’ll do it.”
And I did.
I took his name and everything that went with it:
-Remaining silent when Jewish jokes were casually told in my presence (after all, people now thought I was a McGonagle-someone who shouldn’t be offended by this type of banter).
-Getting a Christmas Tree and decorating it with tinsel and stars and balls (I found Jewish stars and blue and white Christmas balls for the tree- convincing myself that this was my way of maintaining my Jewish identity).
Nibbling on the ham my in-laws served at Easter dinner, even though I didn’t like ham, having never eaten it as a child (I didn’t want to appear “high maintenance” and confirm the stereo types my new family had about Jewish woman).
Becoming Beth McGonagle had its perks. I was now part of a new group- a more mainstream group. I’d laugh alongside new friends who commiserated about the nuns in their Catholic High Schools, pretending I “got it”.
The fact is, I didn’t get it. I pretended to fit in.
But I knew how to pretend. I’d spent my entire childhood pretending my family was normal. Pretending my mother was home taking care of me and my sister, instead of leaving us alone for days at a time to be with her new boyfriend. Pretending I knew how to read, when really I’d just memorized the words in the story. Pretending I was happy, when really I felt terribly alone and sad.
Sometimes we spend so much time pretending, we forget who we really are.
It took me 48 years to truly embrace who I am- not just the good parts, but the imperfect parts too.
This summer, four years after my divorce, I am officially back.
I am Beth Ellen Schulman. Again.
But this time, I’m not hiding or pretending.
Even as I learn and grow and change, I will never again pretend to be someone I am not.
“Sometimes you have to lose who you were to find out who you are.”