“Hi! Welcome to [insert doctor’s office, pharmacy, driver’s licence station, polling location, job interview, or any situation where someone wants to know your name]. May I have your name please?”
“Michelle…..I’m sorry, how do you spell that?”
Helpful customer service person/receptionist/cashier writes down or looks up name on list and pauses. “And how do you pronounce that?”
The above scene plays out in my life on a regular basis. This is my penance for marrying a man not originally from an English-speaking country. (He’s the one who started saying “involuntarily,” by the way.) To be honest, even before I was married I went through this same scenario. My maiden name was Reetz. Fairly straightforward, pronounced just like it’s spelled, spelled almost exactly like it sounds. And yet people always stopped and stared at it. I had a professor in college who managed to mispronounce my name during roll call every single class for an entire semester. Each time he managed to mispronounce it a completely different way, too. He added letters, skipped letters, added syllables, even…and then made a notation in his book on how to properly pronounce my name. By the end of the semester, I started calling out, “Here!” before he could even try, just to save both of us.
I once told my husband we should have taken the chance to change our surname when we got married. We discovered that name changes when you get married are free, and have regretted not switching his first and middle names while we had the chance. (He goes by his middle name, which is a whole other level of legal confusion.) I told him we should have changed our last name to Smith. He replied he would only agree to it if we could spell it “Smythe.” Yup, that’s the kind of man I married.
Growing up, all I ever wanted to be was ignored. From the day I started school, until sometime in college, I did my best to blend in to the background. I failed miserably. I was tall. And I don’t mean, “tall for a woman,” I mean TALL. (I still am, though I am shrinking now that I’m older.) I topped out in college at 6 feet and 3/4 of an inch. Not only am I tall, I’m “rubenesque.” (I was actually called that in college in a personal ad in the school paper when someone was looking for me, and it led to a whole new generation of people looking up the word…and yet another nickname, “Ruby.”) I have been bigger than the rest of the class my entire life. When group photos are taken, I naturally gravitate to the back row. When working in an office, I naturally used the top shelf to store my things. When attending dances, I naturally stayed seated near the wall, because there were no boys tall enough to want to dance with me. No matter how I tried to become one with the wall, blend in with the crowd, or just generally not be noticed, I always was. If, by some miracle, I managed to enter a new situation and NOT stick out like a sore thumb because of my size, my name put me front and center.
“Yeah, what I said.”
Marrying a man with a name that begins with two consonants that don’t belong together and a sound that isn’t even in the English language should have been a HUGE leap for me. For the rest of my life, I will stick out. Even if I lose 150 pounds and 6 inches of height, I will always be noticed, now. There’s no getting around it. So, what changed?
I did. Sometime in college, I met a group of people who never asked me how to spell my name. They never asked me why I did anything. And the shortest male in the group always asked me to dance at the formals, and made it FUN. This group of people just accepted whatever I brought to the table at face value, and valued it. And when I discounted myself for any reason, they immediately told me I was wrong. No matter what I did, or what stupid thing I said, it was cool with them. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be living as unpronounceably as I am today.
Since college, my life has become increasingly unpronounceable. After I graduated, I took my degree in English (with a concentration in Theatre), and worked at Burger King for a while. [Insert song “What Do You Do With A BA in English” from the musical, “Avenue Q” here.] When health insurance became a necessity, I went to a temp agency and they gave me a job in a call center. While there, after a particularly stressful weekend which saw my personal life and professional life clash, I developed pain in my hands. My doctor said it was work-related, work said it was not, and no one would help me until I stood up for myself, saw a lawyer who stood up for me, too, and demanded that someone PAY ATTENTION TO ME. After work sent me to several doctors, a rheumatologist finally diagnosed me with Fibromyalgia. This was in 2000, when there were no ads on TV talking about the latest drug. There were no drugs for FM. Although it had been around over ten years, nobody had ever heard of it. And the name, Fibromyalgia, wasn’t exactly “Smith’s Disease,” either. It’s something else I get to spell out at every doctor’s visit.
Around this same time, I met my husband. Once I got my diagnosis and the workman’s compensation claim was closed, I quit my job, quit smoking, packed up half of my stuff, and moved to Des Moines to be with him. I had learned by this point that blending in with the crowd was never going to happen for me, and I was GLAD. I found a man who loved me, in what seemed to me to be an inconceivable way, and he was proud of being different, and proud of me for being able to be different, too. And since then, he has helped me to be proud of every unpronounceable part of my life. He has supported me through all of the good and bad: jobs, apartments, doctors, friends. He has accepted my disease and all the crap that comes with it, including the irregularity and the unpronounceable symptoms and the never-ending stream of new doctors and co-related-simultaneous-coordinating diagnoses. He has made me realize that living a life where I always stand out isn’t a bad thing. Being a little unpronounceable isn’t a bad thing. So, when people ask me how to pronounce my name, I can smile, and laugh, and know that it’s okay.
My name is Michelle Tjernstrom, and that’s unpronounceable to most people, and that’s okay.