What’s the power of a letter? Have you seen with your eyes or felt with your heart all that a letter can convey? I have. It can bring everything from anger, frustration, annoyance, and faithlessness to comfort, peace, relief, and pride. The distinction is all in the eye of the beholder. Having grown up a relatively malleable young woman, I never would have imagined that I myself could wield a force with a single letter to upset the delicate balance of my relationship with my father, but that’s exactly what I did. Oh, I’m not talking about the correspondence kind of letter, and I’m not being entirely accurate when I refer to just one, because it was technically two of them: the letter “r” and the letter “t”.
When I was a senior in high school, I joined all of my friends in the grind of the college application process. Fill out the forms, write the essays, get the recommendations, send them off, wait for the response. Some of them were easy. “Of course I got in, but did I get a scholarship?” Others were nerve-wracking. Pant, pant, pant. “Is the mail here yet?” Pant, pant, pant. “Anything for me?” Pant, pant, pant. “Is it a big, fat, thick envelope, or a skinny, delicate, disappointing envelope?”
The ecstasy of getting into my first-choice school was quickly squashed by the dilemma of also getting into my father’s first-choice school. I had only applied to it at his insistence. I never intended to actually go there. I didn’t think I’d get in. Of course my ego wanted me to get in, but I knew that I wasn’t made of the stuff that said no to my dad. He was the one who explained decisions to me; I did not explain anything, least of all potentially life-affecting college selections, to him.
And so it was that we sat down at the dinner table one spring evening with a clean sheet of loose-leaf paper in front of us. The column on the left half of the paper bore the name of Dad’s first choice, the right half, of my first choice. The top of each column was dedicated to the pluses, the bottom of each column, to the minuses. After about half an hour of diatribing and chain-smoking (both on the part of my father as I, of course, neither diatribed nor smoked when I was 17), “we” had arrived at a conclusion. The sheet of paper resembled a portion of a large checkerboard, with the upper-left quadrant (the pros of Dad’s first choice) and the lower-right quadrant (the cons of my first choice) satiated with the dark blue ink of Dad’s authoritative handwriting, and the opposite quadrants quite barren. My favorite part of this story is the ending, where it was announced to me that I had clearly and decisively determined which school I would be attending come autumn.
It’s only fair to me to point out that my first-choice was no slouch of a school, and in fact its academics gave those of Dad’s first choice a run for their money. Its failing was in being a school that my father didn’t really know much about. As a mid-westerner, he didn’t grow up really knowing of it, or considering it when people talked of “good schools.” It didn’t have a renowned football team, that sort of thing. And even if it had, it didn’t live up to the ultimate standard, that of being the Irish-Catholic school that his Irish-Catholic self had dreamed as a youngster of attending, but which he did not have the grades to get into.
It’s a cliché, I know, and not the only one I’ve lived in my day. There are many other examples of how I’ve lived my life in relationship to my father’s expectations, but I think you get the idea.
You’re wondering what all this has to do with a letter. Question: How does a girl with an Irish-Catholic father end up with a German name like “Plunkert”? Answer: “Plunkert” isn’t a German name. It’s one of countless Ellis Island mishaps, which began as the very Irish “Plunkett” (“ett” at the end, instead of “ert”). >From St. Oliver Plunkett of 17th century martyrdom to Joseph Plunkett of the 20th century’s Easter Rising, “Plunkett” is a noble name throughout Ireland. When my grandfather’s grandfather left the Emerald Isle for the still greener pastures of the Land of the Free, the registering officer misunderstood the accent, inserting an “r” where a “t” should have been, and so John Plunkett became John Plunkert.
My problem with “Plunkert” was that people didn’t recognize it as a name. There were far more cumbersome names, to be sure, but for some reason no one ever seemed to question that “Billawala” or “Wojciecowski” were people’s names. When you saw them on the printed page, you’d say, “That’s someone’s name. It’s an odd name, and yet it’s a name.” But it seemed to me that when you saw the word “Plunkert”, you’d think, “Well, what’s that you have there?” It didn’t help that the concluding “t” was barely audible in pronunciation, so when spoken it sounded like “Plunker,” which was just weird to have as a name. I don’t know how to better describe why I did what I did. Some amount of nationalistic and genealogical pride was involved, but the most influential reason I can give was simply that I was tired of having a void for a name. A name is supposed to provide a person with an identity. My name didn’t do that for me, so I changed the errant “r” back to the historically correct “t” and with that, became someone. I really thought it was as simple as that. I would truly have sworn that it was merely semantics, that it had nothing to do with repudiating the man whose power I held responsible for my own inability to articulate my desires, my opinions, my values.
I made The Change at a time when it was logistically convenient. I had graduated from (Dad’s first-choice, sigh…) college and was starting a new life by moving to a separate tectonic plate where I knew no one, had no family, and had never even been. In fact, though, my spine wasn’t significantly firmer at 21 than it had been at 17, so I was hoping to pass The Change off as a simple mistake if he ever happened to see it. And in spite of my best efforts, he did see it. There was everything from shipping label return addresses on Father’s Day gifts ordered out of catalogues (“I asked them specifically to omit that!”) to the stubs of airline tickets home for the holidays resting on his living room end table (“Blasted! How could I have been so careless?”). Once I entered the workforce, I procrastinated as long as possible before giving in to my parents’ incessant requests to send home business cards; I didn’t want him to see the offending “t” on such a public document. Like a new mother looking over her infant, I thought I could protect him.
What I really wanted to protect, though, was myself, from his reaction, because I was afraid that he would identify what I had done as betrayal. I was afraid he would take this action, an action which I will tell myself to my grave had nothing whatsoever to do with defying even in some seemingly small yet very obviously visible way his mastery over me, as a rejection of him. I was afraid that my insult would insult him.
It’s been ten years. He has never to this day said one word to me about The Change. And, in spite of a decade’s worth of insurmountable evidence that I myself and everyone else who knows me do it otherwise, he has never to this day spelled my last name any differently than “Plunkert.”
Now I’m getting married, and I’ve been introduced to a dilemma that I hadn’t considered before: What name do I use on the wedding invitations? If I use “Plunkert,” my friends will think it’s an embarrassing typo. If I use “Plunkett,” well, the only downside really is that my father’s heart will be shattered, rightly or wrongly.
I’m using “Plunkert” because, you see, regardless of right or wrong, I love my dad more than I love my name.