I have a snapshot in my mind of Dave and I driving through the intersection at Lougheed and Gaglardi Way in Burnaby testing out names for Yasik. His birth name was Gurin, Yaroslav Nikolayevich –the surname, his given name and the patronomic. Yaroslav as I said was possibly homage to the region of his birth. In respect to impressions we picked up somehow in the pre-adoption phase, we felt Yaroslav should be included in his name. We cannot say that we did so in full-hearted desire to respect his culture. I thought Russia was a country with mysteries I might like to explore but I wanted my son to become as deeply Canadian as I was. I think Dave felt the same. Including Yaroslav as one of his names was merely a nod to approved behavior for adoptors.
This moment in the van testing out names was our, emphasis on ‘our’, naming ceremony for our son-to-be. We may not have called in the relatives or secured a reservation at the local place for religious ceremonies but the moment stays with me. Naming a child has always seemed to me something held to be a precious privilege for parents, whether the recipient child would agree or not. And with good reason sometimes. Case in point, a couple have just named their new born twins, Corona and Covid, as a way to provide a more positive message in a time of stress. They were wobbling along the right track though, for most of us want to find a name that is a positive message to the child or a way to acknowledge those we love or is a name that sounds cool to us because it is a name trending in the particular decades we inhabit. We were no different: we registered our son-to-be with a given a name we liked and then were happy to find had meaning that we thought appropriate, and we tucked in a second name to honour three relatives in one. The end result was, with the inclusion of Yaroslav, our son’s full name is so long it never fully fits in the allotted space given for names in online documents.
The name we use in these journal entries is Yasik, a diminutive of Yaroslav which we were unaware of until we met our son. Had we known we might have retained it for him; he was used to it; we liked it, and in fact used in the early days, mixed in with our given name. A Google scan shows the questions around naming an adoptee are common among adopters, even though a 2014 book, adopting older children: a practical guide to adopting and parenting children over age four, does not mention the issue of appropriate names while asking adopters to consider ways to become aware of their child-to-be’s culture. But then turn to Journey of the Adopted Self: A Quest for Wholeness (p.268) written in 1994 by Betty Jean Lifton, which has been considered ‘The Bible’ for adoptees. Lifton devotes a page to the question of naming and her words carry a potency I do not wish to water down with paraphrase.
As an adopted child, my birth name had been taken from me, and, therefore, according to the beliefs of many old cultures, I was vulnerable to all kinds of dangers. A name was considered a vital part of you, like your eyes or your teeth, and had to be kept secret so that an enemy could not harm you….By taking possession of my birth name, by sealing it away [in sealed adoption files] with the names of all adoptees, society took away my power and the power of all the adopted.
It is impossible to describe how adoptees feel when they learn that first or last name given them at birth. The birth name is a confirmation that you were born and that you exist. It is as integral a part of one today as it was in ancient times. As the poet Stanley Kunitz tells us: “Nothing is mine except my name/ I only borrowed this dust.”
Even when they cannot have a relationship with their birth parents, adoptees may reclaim their names as a way of reclaiming their original identities….Sometimes adoptees will use both their adoptive and their birth names, as if not sure which is the real one and which the impostor.
My husband would be one of the latter. He has included his birth surname in his public name. Does its inclusion suggest a question of identity?
A follow up to Lifton can be found online. Robyn Chittister put up a piece on adoption.com in June 2016 to say a name doesn’t reflect a child’s personality, and it is easy [not sure about that point] to change although adopters do need to think about what impact a name change will have on the child’s world as best they can know at the time. Jennifer Kadwell put up a piece on adoption.com in August , 2019 to say there are no parental manuals to confirm the rightness or wrongness of their choice, but again, Lifton’s observation cannot be ignored. In our global village no name is too ethnic to be considered an albatross. Jodi Meltzer wrote in cafemom in Sept, 2014, “It is not about erasing what happened in the past. You build on their foundation” which is the point Fraser McAlpine wanted to make in July 2013 in a Guardian piece, agreeing “it should never be about making the child ashamed of his [or her] birth world”. In fact Google has shown us how common our son’s name is in Russia, even attached to some illustrious persons in the Yaroslavl region.
With paper work done, passport prepared for Yasik in the chosen name, some child-sized clothing bought, airplane tickets in hand, the night before the flight we opened one of the bottles of wine we had packed as gifts meant to smooth our way into Russian offices; we had crossed off every note on our naive checklist preparing for an adoption. We dusted off the peeling paint and sat on the cement steps of our front porch under what stars we could see through all the street lights and passing cars, and dreamed about our coming life with him. We saw ourselves as very lucky people.
In the morning we dressed for the nine hour flight. We had to get new American dollars to pay for the items on the next checklist, the one that would secure our adoption proceedings in Russia. To be sure those American dollars looked crisp, Dave ironed them. I had sewn a pocket in my bra for half of them and I had sewn a pocket in Dave’s shorts. When we stuffed the pockets with the money – $5,000, I looked like I had three breasts but Dave was sporting a male fantasy, packing around enhanced boys. Many of our extended family saw us off at the airport and then it was a nine hour flight to Frankfurt. We were on our way to the next level of a partnership – up to then we were more like friends helping each other through life, now we were evolving into a unit – a family- with a life bigger than just us. The trip was cramped, but hey, they gave us each a small hand towel, maybe for the morning shower in the tiny toilet. And on to Moscow. When we arrived we were told we would need to declare our money. I went into hysterical giggles wondering if we would have to be strip searched to declare, but no, so maybe it was all on paper; I don’t remember. Our driver and hostess showed up to rescue us though they didn’t speak English. Driving through Moscow we kept seeing signs that read Mockba (in Russian letters) 850. Having done no research before we left, we thought it must be a popular radio station. It was the 850 year anniversary of a city with a long and rich history of which we were ignorant. The driver, Alexi, took us to a Soviet era apartment to our eyes in serious need of ‘renos’ – an ancient elevator, heavy, steel, double front doors, a tiny deck with ¼ inch steel siding. You could see where bullet holes had dented it –a design built out of fear. The furnishings in the interior may have had the touch of a little old lady’s place from the 50s and may not have been Ikea branded, but a sense of art remained evident, complete with an old piano and beautiful wood furniture. We turned on the TV, which had not left the 50s too far in the dust either, to see little men dressed in what we did not know were traditional dress declaring their proud determination to emphasize their independence from Russia, papakha, not cossak, hats, and choka coats. We knew so little of Russia that we were not aware this program had to do with the worsening relations between Russia and Georgia. Books encouraging an attempt at cultural awareness should be given heed.