Nomenclature

What’s in a name? Plenty.

I like my name; it’s unusual. You can probably count the Marens you know on one hand. Growing up, I only knew one other Maren. There was a time I wished my name was something more normal: Susan would have been my choice. But that didn’t last very long and I grew to love the fact that people would put me in the “different” category right off the bat. Having an unusual name meant I could be as individual and unique as I needed to be. But I was constantly having to spell and/or pronounce my name for adults who couldn’t wrap their minds around it. Usually they would over-think it and say, “Maureen? Is that how you say it?” Eventually, I began to say, preemptively, “Maren: it’s like Karen but with an M”. That’s a phrase I still use today- but I got the idea for it many years ago. In Manhattan.

When I was a teenager, my parents had a home business making and selling quilt patterns. They would load up the van with display materials and goods and a cash box and spend a few days at a time at various quilt shows all over the east coast. Sometimes I went with them and it was quite fun. In 1989, we did a show in Manhattan. We stayed with friends Claire and Richard in their home outside the city and drove in each morning to the convention center. One afternoon my mom and I went up to a rooftop parking lot to watch the Navy and cruise ships and take pictures.

M and limo NY 89 sm

(Not my) limo

M and Claire O 89

Claire and me

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As a vendor, I had to wear a big name tag. One day, I was approached by a middle-aged woman who asked me if I knew that my name was Danish. (I’ve mentioned my Danish heritage on this blog before, but I’m named after my paternal great-great grandmother, Maren Kirstine Olsen Petersen.) I responded that I did. She smiled and said my name was in a poem she knew as a child. “Karen, Maren, og Mitte… (something, something) en hytte….” I thought that was kind of sweet.

She then proceeded to say that my name is very old-fashioned in Denmark. She went on about this at some length. She said Maren is so out of date that it’s the kind of name one would name their cow. It’s the Danish version of Bessie, then? I thought. She even mentioned that there was a brand of cheese called “Maren”. Cheese. Great. She probably has no idea that it’s somewhat rude to tell someone how old fashioned their name is and laugh about how it’s usually reserved for big, clumsy, unintelligent, over-bearing, milk-producing farm animals. I was trying to give her the benefit of the doubt. Later experiences in Scandinavia helped me understand this cultural difference; frankness between strangers is not uncommon and not really rude like it is here. But I smiled and nodded as she went on. And on. As she was beginning to leave, I asked her name.

“Agnes”, she said, straight-faced.

Agnes?! You want to mock my name and tell me it’s old fashioned and your name is Agnes? Seriously? “Agnes” totally makes me think of witches. Old ones with crackly voices and wiry hair. I did my 16-year-old best not to let my expression disclose my thoughts, smiled and bade her goodbye.

Wow. It was difficult to know how much stock to put into that interaction and her words. I had thought my name was pretty cool by that age. But suddenly it was not even fit for a milkmaid, just her cow. Maybe, I thought, maybe cows have a slightly higher social status in Denmark than they do here. Hmm. Probably not. When I visited Denmark years later, I looked earnestly for anything in the dairy section with my name on it, but found nothing. Perhaps it has gone so far out of fashion that it’s not even used for cheese anymore.

Regardless of the associations, I still like my name and I wouldn’t change it for anything. I’m thankful for it, in fact. Especially since that ancestor Maren Kirstine Olsen Petersen named her own daughter… Elvira.

Whew, dodged a bullet there, I did.

Thanks, Mom and Dad. I totally owe you one.

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