Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Secret of My Mother's Name

A cross-eyed girl
My parents were Bernie and Evelyn Schwartz.  

 Sounds simple enough since my father never had a middle name, and my mother’s middle name was May.  But at birth my mother was Evelyn May Kosoglad.   Koso what? you ask.  Can you say that again?   

No one ever gets it right the first time, but as one cousin said.  “It’s just ‘O-so-glad with a K.’”  

Sort of friendly, I thought, until I learned the true meaning.  In Russia, where all my grandparents were born, the odd moniker meant cross-eyed.  So what did this say about my family?  Did my great great great grandfather make his way in this world staring at his toes?  Why else would  he pick a disgusting name like that?  I soon began researching the origin of this nightmare.           

Most Europeans acquired surnames around 1000 A.D., but Jews weren’t assigned until the early 1800s when Napoleon came to power and was busy conquering the world.  I guess they suddenly felt the need for full identification to serve in the czar’s army, or more likely to escape it.
Before then, people only used first names, and further clarification was only needed when there were two Peters or two Charles in town.  In those days they either used the father’s name, like Peter, son of John, who became Peter Johnson, or they selected the family’s profession, like Charles son of the Goldsmith, who naturally became Charles Goldsmith.

But each last name changed in every generation.

So if Peter had a son John, he became John Peterson, but only until John had a child of his own.  If John named his own son William, the boy then became William Johnson.  In effect, each family created a totally different last name every twenty years or so, which got more than a little confusing.

I suddenly have empathy for cross-eyed people.

How did they solve this problem?   Russia, always the innovator, produced a new plan.  Everyone could pick a surname, but the prettier it was, the more you paid for the privilege. 
And that was the problem. 
My ancestors were obviously short a couple kopeks so buying a decent name was out of the question.  Unable to bribe the government officials, the poorest of the peasants were assigned nasty names—like the Russian equivalents of dumb, lazy, stupid, and (I sigh), a little cross eyed.

That was my mother’s inheritance.
My mother's family luckily emigrated to America in the early nineteen hundreds.  Born in the twenties, Evelyn May Kosoglad was one of six children, five girls and a boy, which made my Uncle Sol the only one stuck with his surname for life.    Married with three children, he solved the problem once and for all.  Sol petitioned a Michigan court and changed Kosoglad to Keller,  finally ending the tyranny of the czar and any future cross-eyed descendants.

And the moral of this story is:  Don’t take our freedoms for granted.  My family now owns stock in Lenscrafters, and our eyes see straight ahead.