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  • Writer's pictureKatie Hallberg

What’s in a name?

“Nothing is permanent, except change.” - Buddah

On the first day of school, the teachers call you by your real name. I mean, come on, that is no way to show up and be embarrassed by all these new potential friends. I am not “Kathryn”. I have been “Katie” since the third grade. With and I-E, not Y. Tom is Tom. Not Tommy or his “real” name Thomas. Those names are for when we are in trouble. I knew when I heard, “Kathryn”, something was up. When I heard my mom holler, “Kathryn Marshall”, I better hide.

When naming our children, we wanted them to skip the first day of school suffering. Give them a name that would endure. Not to be shortened. Not be changed. A permanent first name. It is what it is. They each got a solid first name and a middle name from a living grandparent. Good thing there were only 3 living grandparents.

All of our children left the hospital nameless. “Baby Hallberg” was written on the paperwork. The nurses didn’t like it, but we didn’t succumb to their pressure. We felt we needed to meet our children before we named them. Names are forever. I felt the weight and importance of naming each child. Until their birth, we didn’t know their gender. *Except for the third child, I found out and kept that a secret, until now. Hee Hee. So, picking a name before birth wasn't a priority. We narrowed down a short list of boy names and girl names we liked as the due date approached.

My mother-in-law adopted her only child. She had never been pregnant and never seen anyone give birth. It felt so natural to invite her in to experience her first grandchild’s birth. To witness life coming into this world. After a few days home staring into these new beautiful blue eyes, we picked the first name and honored my mother-in-law with the middle name. Both, which would die 16 years later.

A dead name is the birth name of a transgender person after they have transitioned to a new name that matches their gender identity. There were several months, if not a year, that I didn’t really know what to call my child. I used a nickname. I called him by our last name like a football player or athlete gets called. “Hey, Hallberg!” We tried on different names like we tried on clothing. One spring break we took a ski trip to Telluride, Colorado. Each of the kids brought a friend. If you have ever been skiing, you know that when you rent skis, they write your name on a sticker on the skis so you don’t lose your pair on the ski rack. For reasons I don’t remember, “Evan” was written on those skis. That name just didn’t fit. Like a pair of tight jeans, it just was off and not right.

About that time, at 16, he got his first job at a local Austin ice cream shop, Amy’s Ice Creams. Amy’s is a local icon for Austin. It has a culture of hiring expressive employees that have tattoos, piercings and dye their hair in vibrant colors. The employees all have to wear hats or head coverings, an apron provided by Amy’s and a name tag.

I was so happy that he felt mentally well enough to get a job. He really thrived in that position. Customer service is natural for him. The store was located next to a dance studio. After weekly dance lessons, mothers would bring in their preschool daughters for ice cream. He would remember their faces and orders. He has a gift for remembering things about people which makes them feel special. This earned him lots of tips and he was promoted. During the pandemic he moved to a store that had a walk up window in a popular Austin hot spot, South Congress. Throughout his four years of working at Amy’s he also was paid to do the artwork at the store. Painting the windows for the seasons and holidays and creating the chalkboard menu for limited or seasonal flavors.

Of course we had to go see him at his first job. All four of us went to get ice cream. Part of parenting is embarrassing your kids from time to time. I mean supporting them. It was very obvious we were “Hallberg’s” family. The manager was really fond of him and his work ethic and happy to see us there. The manager said, “Oh, you’re Tyler’s mom.” TYLER? I knew that was a name floating around the name closet, but I didn’t KNOW that was his name. Writing this, I feel my chest. My heart beating. The world around me stopped. Frozen. I knew I had to respond. I knew I needed to not act surprised. Be confident. Be natural, Katie. Honor your child. You have 3, 2, 1, seconds to not make things awkward and embarrassing. “Ya, I’m Tyler’s mom. I’d like a small Mexican Vanilla please.”

After all the thoughtfulness and intention in naming my child, he renamed himself at the ice cream store. Impermanence. Everything changes and nothing lasts forever. As for his grandmother namesake who witnessed his birth, we played our parent card privilege of naming our child, and used her maiden name.

Implementing his new name took some time. I still get tripped up 5 years later. Sometimes, when I am talking about him before he came out, when he was a little toddler, in dresses and I thought he was my daughter, his first name will slip out. I think it’s okay when that happens. I am not hard on myself or judgemental. It’s who he was to me at that time. The grandparents who didn’t see him often took longer to adjust. I am so grateful they all tried and accepted the changes. I can’t remember a time of him ever correcting them when they glitched on the name or pronouns. He just lets it roll off his back. He knows they love and accept him as he is.

My favorite grandmother, Nannie, was my mom’s mom. She was the first grandparent I was old enough to remember dying. I was nine when she passed away in 1981. I can still remember walking into the kitchen, Mom sitting at the oval tiger striped oak table, when I heard the news. She died suddenly of a heart attack. For those nine years, she left a mark on me. Nannie lived on two thousand acres in Mason County Texas with three miles of Llano river frontage. During the summers, my brother and I would stay a week with our other grandmother, Hettie Fae, in Brady, Texas. Usually around the fourth of July so we could go to the carnival at the July Jubilee and Bar-B-Que Goat Cook Off. Over the following weekend then they would meet up at the Dairy Queen for lunch and swap off grandparent duties and we would stay the second week with Nannie and Cecil on the ranch.

While she was busy with her house work in the mornings consisting of feeding, chickens, a dog named Chopo, goats, tending to the garden, dishes, putting on a pot of beans and pulling laundry out of the wash house to hang on the line, she’d leave me to play with my imagination. After I colored in the rooster on the front page of the San Angelo Standard Times, I would play with my dolls or cut up one of her styrofoam egg cartons to make boats to float in the river. If I would just stay out of her way in the morning, she would pack a cheese sandwich lunch picnic and drive me down to the river to swim in the 1963 Willis Jeep.

The sandwiches were wrapped in a paper towel or waxed paper and consisted of white bread, Miracle Whip and a slice of cheese. After eating, I would sit in the rapids, let minnows bite my toes and look for shells. One time Nannie had set out a trotline to catch some catfish. I never saw her in a swimsuit. She was born in 1910 and grew up in a time before sunscreen existed. Nannie would wade out into the river in her shoes, socks, pants, long sleeve button up shirt and sun at with a stringer hooked to her belt loop, water up to her armpits, and me wrapped around her neck and stomach with my arms and legs like a human backpack. This time after catching a few yellow cats that were now attached to her stringer hanging off her belt loop, she came up on a soft shell turtle on the line. With me on her back pulling up as high as I could so the fish on the stringer wouldn’t touch my legs and her macgyvering the turtle off the line without getting bit or letting me wash down stream. Let’s just say, it was the only time I have had turtle soup.

Nannie could can and smoke anything. Pickled peaches with cloves, beats, green beans, okra. Smoked pork and venison sausage and venison jerky. They lived on and off that land since the 1920’s. I don’t remember her ever using the push pedal sewing machine in the dining room that collected dust and stored a huge cookie tin full of buttons. But she did sew my brother and I personalized red velvet Christmas stockings. It’s sitting beside me now. K-A-T-H-R-Y-N was hand cut out of white felt and hand sewn on top. The letters wrapped around the front and back just below the gold ric-rack top trim. It’s adorned with a yellow felt moon covered with round gold bead topped sequins and has star shaped sequined moon beam rays. Green felt holly leaves with multi-colored jingle bell berries. A trumpting orange yarn angel. Green decorated Christmas tree, some yellow felt stars, a white reindeer and a red and white striped beaded candy cane. I always treasured this stocking. It inspired me to make one the fall after I gave birth in time for Christmas.

I cut out and sewed a red velvet stocking with red satin lining. Using a computer font to trace out the name on white felt, just like Nannie used. The letters were glued under a rim of white fur like the bottom of Santa’s hat. His is adorned with a beaded angel, holly leaves with jingle bell berries, a star and a Christmas tree I traced from a cookie cutter I inherited from my mom.

For sixteen Christmases those white felt letters identified my daughter. My first born child’s name. Three red velvet stockings hung every year, in birth order, with three daughter’s names. A month after our Name and Gender Marker Change hearing at the courthouse in 2018, the Christmas decorations boxes were pulled from the shelves in the garage to begin decorating for the holidays. The stockings were unboxed and like the given birth name, his stocking just didn’t fit anymore. The emotions come in waves. As in all grief, the time intervals in between and the intensity vary. This one caught me by surprise. I had felt a sense of relief and pride succeeding thru the Travis County legal system in Texas and was riding that wave until I saw his stocking a month later.

Gently and carefully I pulled and pried the old felt letters off the red velvet. Each stuck spot was a visceral reminder of the death of a name, feeling like a death of a daughter. Determined to keep his original stocking, I worked to remove all the adhesive residue and the remaining shadow of the old name. A new name was traced onto white felt, cut out and glued onto the red velvet stocking. Three more holly leaves and jingle bell berries added to cover up some remaining residue shadows. The stocking was hung right back onto his stocking holder in birth order and filled with treats from Santa. The Christmas card that year felt like an announcement. With intention, I expanded the recipient list not remembering who all knew about the changes in our family and filtering out people I didn’t care to know. With a new name and beautiful family portrait including our dog Pete, it read: We are grateful for so many blessings, especially each other.

“To be fully seen by somebody, then, and be loved anyhow, this is a human offering that can border on miraculous” - Elizabeth Gilbert.

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