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What's in a name?

I was born Halina Zebrowska in a Displaced Person’s (DP) camp in Weiden, Germany, after World War 2. When I started school in Canada, at the age of 5, I was keenly aware my surname wasn’t English or French.

I was ashamed of being a DP called Zebrowska, although it did have some advantages when the teacher called on us in alphabetical order. I couldn’t change my surname, so at 11 years of age I changed my forename from Halina to Helen. Nobody seemed to mind, and I was happy to have an English-sounding first name.

When I got married, in my 20s, I became Helen Casaubon. Halfway through my marriage I began to proudly embrace my Polish heritage. I abandoned Helen and reverted to Halina.

Then, when I was 42, I got divorced. I was told by the court in Ontario that I could change my name to whatever I wanted, no questions asked. I had a year.

I wasn't about to reclaim the name of my birth father. My mother had left Stanislaw Zebrowski when I was 4 years old. I never saw him again. I didn't remember what he looked like, and my mother cropped him out of all family photographs. But his absence from my life bothered me. Did he think about me? Did he miss me? Did he try to find me, as I tried to find him? I felt hurt and angry that he never came to look for his daughter.

So when I had a legal choice of names, I decided I would never carry a name any man gave me, not father, not husband. I would chose my own name.

After researching, I made myself a saint - Halina St. James. I loved the coming together of the ethnic Polish and the English. A few years later, when I married an Englishman with a perfectly good surname, Everton, I stuck to the name I had chosen.

So now in my 70s, on the eve of my first trip to Poland to meet for the first time my Zebrowski relatives, I reflect on all my names. Which name matters? Which name is really me?

For me, the name that really matters is the name at birth. In my heart I am Halina Zebrowska, and always will be. All the other names were stages of becoming myself. Birth names connect us to our tribe, our family our roots. They make sense, to some degree, of why we look the way we do and act the way we act. The birth name assures us we are not alone. We have a family.

The photo montage that accompanies this post includes some of the Zebrowski family members I have learned about as a result of my search for information about my father.

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