On the long list of Things I Would Change About Myself If I Could, my last name has always been right at the top.
Before you get concerned that this blog is going to alienate my entire family, calm down: don’t confuse a disdain for my name with a disdain for my family. I’m extremely proud of my ancestors, whatever their ethnicity. And thought I never enjoyed the name, I love the people I share it with.
And it’s a perfectly good name, after all. I’ve done some research on it. According to Ancestry.com, there are over 1,000 immigrants in U.S. history bearing the name “Jurkiewicz,” most of them settling in Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan. I once found information online that it was a surname belonging to szlachta (noble) families in the Kingdom of Poland, but I’ve never been able to verify that (if you search long enough on the Internet, you’ll always find some website assuring you that your family is, in fact, European royalty).
Though I’m a Milwaukee native who’s always eaten oplatki on Christmas Eve, I have never really identified with my Polish heritage. My Irish genes completely hijacked my sense of self, as Irish genes are notorious for doing. With a mother who gave me a Gaelic first name, sang “Galway Bay” to me every night, and always assured me that I would have been an Irish princess if the English hadn’t taken our land and castle (perhaps a bit overdramatic, in retrospect) I never gave much thought to my Polishness.
And so my last name has always been an awkward appendage, and I’ve never quite known what to do with it. We’re a very strange fit, the Jurkiewicz and me.
It’s meant confusion (“Whoa. How do you say that?”), teasing (“You must be a jerk!”) and worst of all, unfulfilled expectations. Sometimes you’ll meet someone who knows exactly how to pronounce it, and they will tell me what a “good Polish name” it is. I am always at a loss for words, feeling somehow undeserving of a good Polish name (what with all those Irish lullabies).
I always joked that I would get married as soon as anyone asked me, just to be rid of my last name. But now that I am getting married and facing a Jurkiewicz-less future, I’m surprisingly hesitant to let go.
One of the reasons could be that my grandfather, Thomas Jurkiewicz, died in March. He was a remarkable, hardworking man – a truly decent human being. Since he died, I think of the name differently. It’s something he gave me, after all. Gifts mean so much more when the giver has vanished. As I grow up and witness the illnesses and deaths of an increasing number of people I love, I have learned to cherish all the small things that connect me to them – even if they are things I never thought much of before.
I never thought I would say this, but I just can’t live without the Jurkiewicz. I’ll legally take my husband’s name, because I admire the tradition in that and want to share a name with my future children. But professionally, I’ll keep my maiden name. I may not think it’s particularly pretty, and it may not be very easy to pronounce. But like everything else on my list of Things I Would Change About Myself If I Could, it’s an indispensable part of my identity.
And when push comes to shove, I might not change those other things on the list, either.