I was never one of those girls who plan their weddings in junior high, before they’ve ever been kissed. Even after years of dating a guy, I wouldn’t let myself fantasize about the Big Day. Yet, I’ve always been sure of one thing: if I got married, I’d take the guy’s name.
It’s not that I have anything against women keeping their names. It’s just my name, Schmelling. Look at it. It contains 10 letters, 8 of them consonants. It has ready-made playground insults an average third grader could decipher in two seconds, it makes telemarketers gasp and, for reasons I’ve never been able to fathom, as it’s really just “smelling” with a “shh” at the start, there’s still a 90 percent likelihood it won’t be pronounced correctly outside of the Midwest or Northern Europe.
But ever since I got engaged last year to a guy who happens to have the unique yet pronounceable name Yessis (which could still lead to puns, but none of them embarrassing), I’ve started to waver. Somehow, beyond all things rational, I’m having trouble letting Schmelling go.
OK, there are more awful names. People share monikers with serial killers and dictators, body parts and swear words, or have parents who’ve saddled them with puns like Tom Morrow. For me, it’s just been this day-to-day hassle that always had an easy out. Unless I fell in love with someone with a worse name, I would escape the Schmelling situation. See what I mean? The words “Schmelling situation” are funny, right? Try listening to grown men stifle giggles when they hear it in business meetings. Watching heads turn when you have to respond to someone shouting “SMELLING” into a microphone at jury duty. I’ve had to spell it four times for a dinner reservation or to pick up a prescription; I’ve seen cashiers, required by their stores to say “Thank you, Miss Schmelling,” get genuinely perturbed.
There’s only one famous person with a similar name, the German boxer Max Schmeling, who, no matter what he did the rest of life, was still known for representing the wrong side in the war. When the rare person asks me if I’m related to him, I do get to tell my grandfather’s old joke: “No, Joe Louis knocked the ‘L’ out of him.” (Get it? He only had one L!) But this hardly gives the name much improvement.
Plus, I’m a writer. And when it comes to the dream of having my book on the (of course) center table of the store, I’ve had trouble seeing it. SCHMELLING. Taking up most of the cover. Wouldn’t it have the potential of turning readers, let alone editors or agents, away? Look at any best-seller list and tell me there isn’t something unifying in the ease of articulation among the Browns and Kings, the Higgins Clarks and the McCall Smiths. My spell-checker doesn’t even flutter for these names, but for mine, I’ll always have a red line and the question, “Did you mean ‘scheming’?”
For all of these reasons, this was the one major adult decision I wouldn’t have to ponder. Then, there my boyfriend was with his question and his ring. Schmelling! The mutilated phonetics! The potential bias against it by the entire literary world! Finally, after dealing with it every day for 35 years, I had a new chance. But did I want to take it?
Maybe if I was 22, I could let it go. At 35, I’ve been a Schmelling for a long time. I’ve built a career with this name. There’s a good chance I’m the only one in the world with this exact spelling, this combination. Why would I change something that’s so completely my own? I think about my family: I have female relatives in Denmark who passed Schmelling, and not their husbands’ names, on to their children precisely because of its uniqueness. My own mother went from the infinitely easier Cohen to become a Schmelling, and since she’s had it her entire adult life, it’s the only way she thinks of herself. But I’ve gone through all of my 20s and half of my 30s with this moniker. I’ve dated and traveled with it, taken it with me on job interviews, signed leases, opened bank accounts, placed (poorly) with it in a marathon. Now, I think about the family reunions where we’ve actually donned baseball caps that say PROUD TO BE A SCHMELLING. Maybe, after such a good, long run with this name, I finally am.
As for that book dream, there are name-challenged literary pioneers to take heart in. Annie Proulx and Jhumpa Lahiri. Janet Evanovich, Audrey Niffenegger, and Jennifer Weiner, who pronounces it “wine-er” but darned if TV interviewers don’t call her “weener” in front of the whole country. Oh, how my spell-checker shivers in panic at these names! But oh, the Pulitzers, the skyrocketing sales, the movie rights between them. They’ve forced a pronunciation-lethargic nation to reconsider all vowel and consonant placement. They’ve paved the way for all the Anita Baths and Bill Boards, for the Bastardo and the Butz, for the Strange.
So, as much as I love my fiancée, I don’t think I’ll be taking his name the day we say, “I do.” Who knows, maybe down the road, when I get hand cramps from writing both of our full names on things, and quite possibly if I ever have to hear a child teasing my own son or daughter about their mother’s name, I may reconsider. For now, I’m Sarah Schmelling. It’s long and, as I’ve been told sometimes angrily, it’s “a real mouthful.” But in the end, for better and worse, it’s me.