Like a Tattoo, my Middle Name is my True Self Revealed
Middle names are like tattoos. They reveal our true selves, unlike nicknames that are the ready-to-wear of nomenclature, worn for a season or two, then left in the back of the closet. Like Nehru jackets and bell-bottoms, I’ve worn the nicknames Kip, Sputnik and Super P. But the inner me will always be Thaddeus.
Nurse Vivian gave birth to Brother Not X in 1948 and to Brother X in 1950. But then she had five miscarriages, each one a heartbreak. In 1958, pregnant and determined to save the baby girl she always wanted, she prayed on her knees a novena to Saint Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of the impossible. During her rosary, she told him that she would name the child after him: Judy Elizabeth.
She also took a drug called diethylstilbestrol, and whether it be divine intervention or almost modern pharmacology, that very hot July she went into labor. Nurse Vivian was an obstetrics nurse, and so she delivered four babies that day, only one of them her own. In fact, the one right before me was a “beautiful” baby girl, so you may imagine how disappointed Nurse Vivian was that I wasn’t quite the girl she had expected.
Although she felt slighted by St. Jude, she still owed him a little something, so she gave me the middle name Thaddeus. It took me eight years to learn how to spell it. Fifty years to learn it was the Aramaic term for “courageous heart.”
We kept a little statue of him in the China cabinet, and thanks to living under the flight path of JFK airport, the apostle would rotate around. “It’s a sign,” Nurse Vivian declared to which Pop replied, “TWA is no miracle.” But whenever we played penny poker, Pop advised, “Thaddeus is the patron saint of the inside straight.”
And somehow this guy became the guardian of the Fisher-Paulsons. When we had the triplets, the middle name of the middle child was Thaddeus. When Zane, the spirited boy whom the foster homes had deemed unadoptable, moved in with us, he had already earned the middle name.
In Zane’s very first temper tantrum, he threw the now-ancient statue and broke his nose off. It’s been re-glued, but now the saint looks a little bit like a boxer.
When my editor read the final draft of my book, he told me that my full name wouldn’t fit on the book cover, and that the “Thaddeus” had to go. But it remains my secret identity, forever tied to the saint of lost causes.
Brian may be a trophy husband, but I’m a long shot, the kind of deputy who makes Barney Fife look butch. Zane and Aidan are long shots, drug-addicted foster children who found homes the long way round. (True story: One of my tough deputy friends babysat them, and the next day he scheduled his vasectomy.) Bandit may be a long shot, the crippled Pekingese, but a very expensive shoulder screw later, he waddles around the backyard like a drunken penguin.
For some, the middle name is a promise of what will be when they embrace their real self. Just ask James Paul McCartney or William Bradley Pitt or Laura Jean Reese Witherspoon — though I would like to know what made Walt Willis think Bruce was more macho.
Zane’s confirmation is in April, and I will no doubt write a column about it, but in short it’s the Catholic version of bar mitzvah. And as a bonus, you get to pick an extra middle name. Last week, the priest asked him what name he chose, and Zane replied, “Jude Thaddeus.”
“Isn’t that already your middle name?”
And Zane replied, “We don’t want him to think we switched saints.”
There you have it. In the public schools, he will still be known as Zany T, but the eternal church will know him as Zane Thaddeus Jude Thaddeus Fisher-Paulson. Maybe we really are passing values down to our sons.
And on March 10, don’t forget to celebrate Middle Name Pride Day. It really is a thing.
Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle.