Friday, March 5, 2010

Whats in a Name?

One of the most interesting phenomena in rural life is the importance placed on surnames. Some would say that if you don't have the last name of one of the most powerful people in town, or you are not related in some way, you won't get very far. Not being raised in the small midwestern town I now call home, I am constantly asked where I am from when someone hears my last name. Those in the know, know that I am not from around here and that is important to them in finding out who I am.

When I lived in Southern California, my last name was not important. Whether or not I could do the job was important. Whether or not I had the education and training was important. Who my father, mother and grandparents or neighbors were was not important.

I would argue that wherever you live, whether in a large metropolitan area, or rural midwestern village, there are several other factors that more greatly limit, increase or ease your access to personal power and autonomy; interpersonal relationships, territory (land and assets) and money (disposable income).

In a small town, resources and options are limited and so interpersonal relationships become critical. Sought after relationships are those that revolve around who has the most territory and money. If you are luck enough to have a relative with both, you are in the in-crowd. I find it interesting that forty years after they have moved here, some residents of my small town are still asked if they were born here.

Before my daughter left for the big city, she told me that she didn't think she could ever get anywhere here because she had the wrong last name. I understood her position but told her to remember that, if she went to the cemetery she would see some very large tombstones with last names that were no longer to be found in our local phonebook. They had territory and money, but their interpersonal relationships were not strong enough to sustain their future and their surnames are rarely mentioned except by genealogists and local historians.

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