Ain’t Nothing But a Family Thing

The keen observer may have noticed the change of masthead on this blog, and while I’m not typically prone to public introspection, I recognize that a name change outside of marriage (and for a man, in any circumstance) is an unusual enough event in our culture that the matter deserves a bit of explanation.

I was a strange child — this should not come as a surprise to those who know me to be a strange adult. I like to think of myself as inwardly eccentric; I present a fairly reserved public face because I’m not naturally inclined to draw attention to myself (though I admit my addiction to Twitter belies this claim). While I’m a happy introvert these days, my personality stems from a social anxiety I developed as a child and that persists in my adulthood. For years I was unable to recognize the source of that anxiety, which is odd because I’ve never had trouble remembering specific events from my childhood. It’s only been in the past few years that I’ve been able to correctly identify these events as a pattern of abuse. I didn’t write this to dwell on the past or seek sympathy for ancient history. But I was abused by my father at a young age, first physically, and then psychologically as I got older. My dad is an abuser, a master manipulator, and at the moment, a federal prisoner. It’s not a nice thing to say, but sometimes it’s helpful to just start by laying out the facts.

So much of what’s good about me, with the exception of my dad’s intelligence and dark sense of humor, I attribute to the three women who raised me: my mom, Mary; my grandmother, Frances; and my nanny, Mary Maude. Because my parents were public schoolteachers, my mom was afforded little in the way of maternity leave and their tiny salaries couldn’t bear the brunt of her not going back to work, so they managed to set money aside to find a babysitter to take care of me during the day. I don’t remember how they found Mary Maude, but what started out as a babysitting job became family; I think of her as one of my moms. My grandmother was also a regular fixture in my life; my brother John and I had the good fortune of being the only grandchildren who lived in the same small town my grandparents did, and we happily monopolized their time. Their house was my second home and my refuge. A standard vacation for my parents was a Saturday night at home alone while I slept at my grandparents’ house. A really luxurious, every-few-years vacation for them was a week at a state park while my grandparents took me to our family farm, the house my great-grandfather built out in the country.

Frances Miklic Martin, the best there ever was.

My grandparents nurtured all my interests: artistic, musical, culinary, historical, and even those that other parents and grandparents might have feared: like when I found my mom and aunts’ stash of Barbie dolls from the 60s and begged my grandmother to take me shopping to buy them new outfits. Frances’ demeanor bore no trace of shame as she marched me through Bill’s Dollar Store on a hunt for doll clothes for her grandson, though I don’t think she was pleased by how scandalously tight 1980s Barbie’s clothes fit on 1960s Barbie’s figure. My sense of good taste eventually prevailed; we switched Barbie back to her Jackie Kennedy-inspired houndstooth suit and pillbox hat after not long.

As I grew into an adult, my relationship with my father actually improved. Though I still feared him enough to hide my sexual orientation from him — years of seeing him mock the voice and mannerisms of the stereo­typical homosexual made me certain that was a non-starter — we began to get along on an intellectual level. It kept improving until a week after Christmas of 2005, the day my mom called me at work in Baltimore to tell me that the FBI had broken down the door of our family home in Alabama to arrest my father for distributing child pornography. A lifetime of bad memories and a decades-old sense of unease came crashing back that day, and I haven’t seen my dad since.

It’s a terrible thing to have to recognize your father as a Bad Person. It’s worse to have to recognize the traits you share with him. My father was abused as a child, and I understand that the way he treated me was a continuation of that cycle1. I’m not sure exactly why, but the way that family history has manifested itself in my life is not by being abusive toward others, but to myself. I can’t deny that I’m carrying both the metaphorical and the literal weight of an unhealthy childhood and young adulthood with me even now, but today at 33, I’m happier and healthier than I’ve ever been in my life. And I know that history doesn’t define my future. As long as I can remember, I’ve felt more like a member of my mother’s family than my father’s, and I choose to embrace the good I see in myself, the traits for which I give them credit.

My great-grandfather Anton “John” Miklič came to the United States from a tiny village called Stari Kot (current population: 11) in what was Austria-Hungary at the time, now Slovenia. He came to establish a new home and start a family, but was called back to Europe to fight in World War I. He went (a trait I can’t say I’d share with him) and then returned to Alabama after the war. It was there that he met my great-grandmother, also from Slovenia, a widow with five children of her own. They married and had five more: Margaret, Rose, Josephine, Johnny, and my grandmother, Frances — yes, our family is Catholic. My great-grandmother died when Frances was a young girl, and John supported the family of 11 on his own.

Robert “Joe” Martin, my grandfather, went to Europe to fight for the U.S. in World War II. During the war, Stari Kot was burned to the ground by Italian soldiers and all its residents were sent to a concentration camp. Marija Miklič, Frances’ grandmother and my great-great-grandmother, died during the march to the camp. After the war, Joe and Frances married and had seven children, including my mom Mary, named for Marija. The American Miklics thrived and grew by the dozens, though along the way, the name continued to decline since most of John’s children were women, and they took their husbands’ names in marriage. Today the last remaining Miklic is my great-uncle Johnny’s wife, our beloved nonagenarian Aunt Lou.

And now me. Not legally yet, but that will come eventually. Thomas is a fine name, and I’ll always remember my late uncle and grandmother Thomas fondly. But your family determines your name at birth, it doesn’t decide it for life. I have always felt more like a Miklic, so a Miklic I shall be.

A note: while I’ve vacillated on this decision for years, I was inspired by some of my Automattic colleagues in gathering the courage to finally make the switch. I believe Automattic (and Automattic alumni) have a far-higher incidence of name changes for non-traditional reasons, perhaps owing to our independent nature. So my thanks goes to those of you who provided the example to me, who convinced me it wasn’t really a crazy thing to do. And to everyone who’s offered your encouragement and support, I thank you sincerely. As I start a semi-new life in a new home later this year, it feels great to accompany it with a semi-new name.

1 Hence today’s title.