What was important to us in 2016? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the year’s issues, big and small.
Lots of women are faced with the choice of whether to change their names. Most aren’t ten years old when they have to decide.
That age wasn’t great for little Ally Manning. My dad’s drinking had gotten worse. I’d wake up in the morning to find him sitting on the couch in his robe, a Budweiser dangling between his knees. My mom was done with his all-day drunkenness, his inability to keep a job, his lying and long absences. After several nights sleeping in his pickup truck in the garage, he hit the road one February night and he didn’t come back. We didn’t even know where he was. My mom went through the process of divorcing him in absentia (which involves putting an ad in the newspaper letting him and everyone else know that your family is busting up). We had no money. That truck my dad drove off in had been bought from the guy next door, and my dad hadn’t made all the payments. We still had our house, but within a year, we’d be pushed out by my dad’s brother, who’d bought the place from my parents when they couldn’t afford it anymore.
One evening in 1996, my mom sat my six-year-old brother and me down on the bottom bunk in my room. She explained that through the divorce, she’d have the option to change back to her maiden name. But she wanted to keep the same name as us. And so, it would be up to my brother and me whether or not our whole family was rebranded.
My stomach hurt. A new name? My little brother said sure; he didn’t care, or didn’t understand. My mom was looking at me.
I’d been mostly silent about the divorce. I’d barely cried, and certainly not in front of my mom. I know now that’s classic oldest child of an alcoholic behavior. We pretend everything is fine even as vacuums get thrown and dad doesn’t come home for days and life as we know it continues disintegrating. We put up a brave face.
So that’s what I did. I told my mom, no, I wanted to stick with Manning. I was adamant. So we’d all stay Manning.
I still don’t know why I made that choice. Was it some lingering loyalty to my dad? Did I think he’d be back or he’d be sad if he found out? Was I not as angry at him back then as I would be when I was a teenager and young adult? Was that legal action just one step beyond what my little jumbled up psyche could handle? I’m still not sure.
I’ve often regretted it. Not only did my dad leave to (mostly) never be seen again, so did his family, all the other Mannings—my aunts and uncles and grandmother. His brother sold the house we were living in. We moved into a shithole apartment, leaving behind the swing set and playhouse my dad had made and giving away our dog (that’s something I did cry over). I never saw my paternal grandmother again. Twice a year, on my birthday and Christmas, I’d get a card from her with my name misspelled on the front and a $25 or $50 cheque inside. Every summer, she’d head to Cape Cod from Florida and would drive right by our exit on the highway. She never stopped.
My dad’s siblings weren’t much better. We never heard from any of them, until my dad died in 2010. Then they started coming out of the woodwork. I surprised myself by how angry I was. Every Facebook friend request or online message lit a fire inside me. Where were they for ten-year-old me? Were they reaching out now because I hadn’t ended up a mess—no thanks to them? I deleted their requests, blocked their profiles, not wanting them to get a smidge of my life.
The worst was the obituary. My dad’s sister-in-law called my mom about it. They wanted to include my brother and I as his survivors. No way, I said. He didn’t get that. So they took us out. I’ve searched for it online but have never been able to figure out if it ran.
When my dad died of complications from his drinking, I didn’t think it affected me much. He had already been dead to me for a long time. By then, I was a newspaper reporter, covering my hometown. I’d write about the same kind of trouble my dad used to get into—DUIs, petty thefts, the occasional burglary, child support delinquencies. He owed more than $100,000 in back child support to us by the time of his death.
By then, my name wasn’t just a name. It was a byline, that coveted journalistic identity. I had occasional regret that I hadn’t thought to change my name back when I was a kid, because it was too late now. Allison Manning was my brand, how readers could identify me and editors hire me. Most reporters stick with the name they were born with. I continued working, taking new, bigger jobs. My and my friends’ lives kept growing. People started getting married. Some changed their names. Some didn’t. I wouldn’t change mine, for a bunch of reasons. I’m a feminist. It seems like a hassle. I’m a journalist. I’m going to be Manning forever, whether I like it or not.
Then I met Josh. He was a reporter, too, at the same Midwestern daily as me. Things happened as they usually do. We moved in together after four months, bought a house four months after that, got a dog from the shelter within the same year. Our friends started calling us “the Jarmannings,” a smashup of his last name—Jarman—and my Manning. It was a happy coincidence that our names fit so nicely together and we took advantage of it. Artwork on our walls proclaimed “The Jarmanning Estate, Est. 2013.” We gave our dog the joint last name. It made choosing our wedding hashtag easy.
Which brings me to April 2016, a month before our wedding. The two of us sat on rickety chairs in front of a computer at the clerk’s office at Boston City Hall. We were filling out our application for a marriage certificate. The cursor blinked on the one blank cell: “NAME AFTER MARRIAGE.”
We thought we’d just each keep our names. It seemed easier. It made more sense. Jarmanning was just a joke, a Twitter hashtag, a shorthand. Right?
Suddenly, I was back on that bottom bunk, 20 years older but still trying to decide how much a name really means and who I wanted to be.
We didn’t do it. Not that day. We typed in “Jarman” and “Manning” and walked out of city hall both feeling a little unsettled. We looked at each other. Josh was like me, an adult child carrying the name of a man he didn’t have any connection to anymore. Wasn’t this our chance to decide who we wanted to be, together?
So we went back a few days later, and made the change. We walked out of city hall again, this time giddy. The Jarmannings.
If you look above this essay, you’ll still see Manning as my byline. Sorry for the confusion, but—at least for now—I’m still Allison Manning, the reporter. But when I write our Christmas cards, RSVP for a wedding or call our dog walker, we get to be the Jarmannings. The change hasn’t papered over all the raw feelings I still have about my dad and my family and what happened as a kid. But having Josh Jarmanning by my side, and knowing we’re in this together, helps make it feel a little easier. Those extra three letters feel pretty good.