The Ballad of Mrs. Ed Flynn
"Tonight's the night Mrs. Ed Flynn starts Polyunsaturating her husband."
Two days before my wedding, my mother pulled out a circa 1969 National Geographic magazine she had set aside for my future husband, who is an airline pilot. The cover story on the future of transportation featured predictions about supersonic transport, automated ticketing, and buses and houses that fly. Happy for a distraction from the wedding, Chris and I flipped through the magazine to the last page, and that's where we met Mrs. Ed Flynn.
The ad for Mazola cooking oil and margarine featured a woman nuzzling her husband as she offered him heaping bowl of salad beneath the tag line, "Tonight's the night Mrs. Ed Flynn starts Polyunsaturating her husband." Poor Mrs. Ed. Here she was undertaking a revolution in home economics and the poor woman didn't even get her own name. That's when I began to wonder what I was getting myself into.
Now let's be clear: I wasn't some teenage bride. After 38 years as Caitlin O'Neil, there was little danger I'd forget who I was. I had come by my name in the days before there were Caitlins (or Katelyns or Katlynns), surviving an elementary school's worth of mispronunciations to, as they say, own it. And then, of course, there was my last name, and the great gleaming shamrock of it all. I couldn't separate myself from my name anymore; I didn't know where it ended and I began. We were seamless. But here was this ad, published only two years before I was born, to remind me that women's identities had once existed only in relation to their husband's. And it wouldn't be the last reminder.
After much deliberation, I decided to tack on my husband's last name and move my own up to the middle. So I became Caitlin O'Neil Amaral, and began making calls and writing letters to the Social Security Administration, Massachusetts DMV, and finally the credit card companies to make it so. For the most part, I was surprised at how simple it was to change a name. Until I got my American Express card in the mail.
It read Neil Amaral.
It had been a great 38 years, but there was a new man in town. Mrs. Ed Flynn eat your heart out. I hadn't been hidden inside my husband's name. I'd become him.
When I called to get the error corrected, I bounced from once customer service representative to another, I suspect because I was the funniest call they'd had all week. Finally I spoke with a Ms. Cox, who issued me a new card and told me I was lucky. I didn't want to know the misprints she'd seen on her credit cards.
My story might have ended there, if I hadn't had to fill out one final piece of paperwork for my employer, a university with extensive computer automation which needed my name as it appeared on my Social Security card to take care of pesky details like my paycheck and health insurance. I inter-officed the harmless looking piece of paper and thought no more about it until, with a keystroke, my name changed to Caitlin Amaral across the entire system. The trouble was I hadn't changed my name at all at work. I'd been writing and working and teaching for almost 20 years. My students knew me only as Professor O'Neil. Who was this Professor Amaral? Where was her office? The computer made the choice for me and, the IT office told me, I couldn't change it back in any easy way.
So both the name I was born with and the name I chose were gone, replaced by a name the school decided on for me. I was angry at first. As a modern woman, in the age of automated ticketing and supersonic transport, I felt entitled to pick and chose which name to use. Then I remembered Mrs. Ed Flynn. At least I had my first name. And a job of my own. I could be polyunsaturating my husband tonight. Good thing he's off flying those buses.