Part 92: That Time I Changed My First Name
My friend Dorrit texted me the photograph above with a question: "Porterville 1920s?" She'd sent another photo with the KKK marching down this street. The Klan was still active in Porterville in the 1980s, can you believe that shit?
A writer for the Porterville Recorder noted that in 1985, a man contacted the paper to drum up some publicity about a demonstration the Klan was having on South Main Street. The reporter, Rick Elkins, told the man that he would not give them publicity, but the paper did report the event after the fact. Mr. Elkins was shocked to see that the KKK were still active in town. I'm not shocked. Dorrit isn't shocked. It makes so much sense. (See my book burning experience when I first arrived in Porterville in part 84: The Hayride.)
Dorrit and I recently compared notes regarding our collective culture shock in Porterville. Dorrit's family was one of the few Jewish families in town back in the 1980s, they were originally from Israel. A "bible belt" feeling hung over the town, churches were everywhere. School was a hazing, and the religious kids were some of the meanest. Boys were regularly called fags, faggots, homos, girls were called whores and sluts. It wasn't a great place to be a teenager. A powerful minister in town had kicked his eldest son out of the house for being gay, this minister held every sin in contempt, always preaching about his church being the only church. The thing is, he was screwing several women in his large congregation, and it finally all came out. It's almost expected from those judgmental mofos.
Dorrit whisked me away from that town forever, (not soon enough) and she is the reason I went to college. I like to think I would've found a way out regardless, but looking back on it now, I can't imagine. Still, I had a whole year to stew about Riley dumping us.
So there we were, me and my mother. The stench of Riley's cigars faded over time. He'd moved us to this town in the middle of nowhere and abruptly left us, sneaking away, just as he'd done with his fourth wife, Jo Sullivan. (Jo, a working actress, was told to pack up with their two children and move from New York City to Reading, Pennsylvania. It didn't take him long to leave Jo–– Riley slipped away soon after the move, leaving her in a place she didn't want to be and couldn't make a living in. She never saw him again). Back in 1984, I was clueless about this pattern, this history. I was told Riley's former wives banished him for some reason, I believed my father's version of events.
I don't know where Riley was living when he first left Porterville and went into hiding. Was there a girlfriend? Or girlfriends? Did he "marry" someone? A few years ago, I found stacks of love letters from various women written to Riley from around this time. He'd saved them with some old ASCAP papers. One of his "pen pals" sounded a little crazy, her letters rambling on about how he came into her life and "showed her the way." She began one letter "I know I'm not supposed to write you or bother you, but I had to let you know how grateful I am that you came into my life..." and then it goes on––four full-sized pages, typed.
This is what I wrote in my diary about Riley's departure, pictured below. You can see I watched way too many old movies. "Father has left us-–– he owes too much money." Dramatic. I'm also concerned that I'm a nineteen year old virgin, and it's a funny mixture of thoughts for a small page in a diary.
I think about that study a lot, the one about how the human brain isn't fully developed until age 25. Looking back on the way I thought about things, this theory makes sense, plus the under-developed brain theory explains a rash decision I made regarding my first name.
After March 25th, 1984 I stopped writing in this journal and moved onto regular spiral notebooks.
Outraged that Riley would abandon us, I changed my first name. I wonder now why I didn't change my first and last name, but maybe it seemed all too much at once. Riley named me. Jan said he insisted on naming me Stacy when I was born. She'd wanted to name me Kristen. I imagined an epic battle over my name, the power play over my crib, Jan finally caving in bitter defeat.
The day of my big decision, Jan and I sat on the old sofa fuming about all the things Riley had done over the years, all the lies, the broken promises. I decided to legally change my first name to shed any part of him that I could. It was a "that'll show him" kind of a move.
But what name?
Jan suggested that if I simply added an "a" to the end of my name. "It'll be a Slavic spelling," she said. "Add the "a" at the end, and a circumflex to the first a, the name would be pronounced "Stah-Sha."" Jan wrote it out on a piece of paper so I'd have a visual. She seemed so confident! I didn't know any better.
"Are you sure?" I said.
Jan insisted that her ancestors came from there, so she knew. We drove down to the Social Security office with no delay, and I legally changed my name to Stacya Shepard. Which I now understand isn't a Slavic spelling, or a Polish one, or any other spelling. Honestly, I probably should've given it a bit more thought, but the anger made me irrational, plus nineteen year old brain, as mentioned. I wanted to severe ties with Riley in solidarity with Jan. I promised never to speak to him again, to have nothing to do with him.
Most stories would end that way. An epiphany! "I found out my father was a bum, a liar, a crook–– and I never spoke to him again." The End.
Next, I receive a letter in the mail, from Riley–– eight months later.
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