March 31, 2005

What’s in a name?

Filed under: Art and About Family — admin @ 3:55 pm

The art each of us produces is supposed to be autobiographical, but I never thought it would happen to me. Although I live an artful life, much of what I make with my hands I classify more as pragmatic, utilitarian crafts. The greatest message I believe most of my artsy-craftsy projects project is that I am a pragmatic, utilitarian kind of gal. My latest project started out as another practical endeavor but secretly, I was revealing a truth about myself I never knew.

Our hall bathroom has a blank wall directly facing the door. There is a lot of cool family memorabilia in the bathroom, which is our play on the term “family bath,” but you have to walk into the room to see it. We needed something on that blank wall to lure people in, and capture the theme of the room to passersby.

Since it is a bathroom, we decided an attractive medicine cabinet would serve storage needs and be nice to look at. But the piece had to have some history about it. I was fortunate to find a $5 solid oak cabinet at the Oakland Museum’s White Elephant Sale. It needed some love, but it matched the other woodwork in the room perfectly. Now I needed to turn the practical into an art statement.

A wide, wooden frame surrounding both the mirrored door and the shelving portion of the cabinet were just asking to be carved. The place in my brain that sends up ideas while I take a shower exclaimed, “How about a quote about the importance of family.” Google helped me find the perfect quote by Gail Lumet Buckley: “Family faces are magic mirrors. Looking at people who belong to us, we see the past, present and future.” I decided to paint this prose on the mirror and carve all the surnames I could collect from both sides of the family that have contributed to my kids’ bloodline.

I started emailing my relatives and my husband’s relatives and the names started pouring in. The list grew, and I started to carve what I call The Parade of Maiden Names into the cabinet. My name, Engelbrecht, and my husband’s name, Smyth, are centered on the mirror doorframe and the generations of names follow up and down the cabinet.

This process made me examine my name. Although it is a difficult name for Americans to spell and pronounce, there was never really a time in my life that I intended to change it when I got married. My parents would joke that I used to say I hoped I married a man named “Smith” or “Jones,” but I didn’t really wish for that. Besides, I did end up marrying a man named “Smyth,” but no one can spell or pronounce his name either.

I grew up in a very traditional household. I do not consider myself a feminist. It just never made sense to me to change my name. I was born Christina Engelbrecht and that’s just who I am. My paternal relatives are a very proud and vocal people and I knew from day one what it meant to be an Engelbrecht woman. When I was in my early 20s, my maternal grandmother wrote a history of my mom’s family. It wasn’t until then that I realized, “Wow, these are pretty cool people and I barely know anything about them.”

While collecting names for the cabinet, I talked to several people on both sides of the family who regrettably had lost track of the family that belonged to their mother or grandmother. Some relatives couldn’t even remember their grandmothers’ maiden names. An extensive family tree on my husband’s side goes back to the 1600s with one surname, and most of the carriers of that name have their wife’s maiden name identified on the tree. But it took a lot more work for me to trace the tree that went with each of those maiden names, even though their ancestral contribution to the family is just as important as the men’s.

A light came on with the cabinet carving that I am not an Engelbrecht woman. I am a Ritter-Engelbrecht woman. Or more accurately, a Roebker-Maetting-Kuhlman-Wagener-Brunow-Bruening-Steege-Sept-Keller-Kudzinskly-Ritter-Engelbrecht woman, and I am not going to forget that.

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