by Deedee Agee
© Deedee Agee 2002 All Rights Reserved
Ive always had a problem with my name. In the beginning I lived without one while my parents tried out names a week at a time to see if they fit. My mothers favorite was Leopoldina after the crown prince Leopold of Austria, where she was from. Poldi for short. All those years as the class fat girl, I knew Poldi would have been the icing on the cake, and I thanked my lucky stars my father had put his foot down. Another idea was Maria Teresa, after the Austrian empress, but thankfully my parents decided the royalty connection might in itself be a drawback for a child. They both liked the name Teresa though, and Julia as well, but there was the sticky question of the order. Teresa without the h was what they wanted to actually call me, but to them Teresa Julia didnt sound as good as Julia Teresa, so Julia Teresa Agee it was, and I would simply go by my middle name. I dont know why they spelled it without the h, but somehow I came to understand that there was something decidedly lower class about spelling Teresa with an h.
Anyway, from the beginning, my grandmother called me Chickadee, and never gave it up. Trying to imitate her, I said Deedee, and it stuck. Other Deedees Ive met are really Dierdres, Denises or Deborahs, and people always ask if Im one of those. It used to embarrass me to tell how I started out as Julia Teresa, and ended up Deedee. It felt like a Just So story How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin. Maybe that association was what gave me the idea of making the whole thing into a little story in its own right, ending by saying, So, in a way you could say I named myself, and I liked that better.
Through grade school, I had two names: Deedee at home, and Teresa in school. This felt right, since I experienced myself as two different people: Deedee a sad, bored, overly sensitive, temper-tantrum-throwing child who caused problems for the adults; Teresa a shy, cooperative, responsible good-girl who all the teachers loved. Since the at-home tantrum-thrower seemed more like my real self to me, Deedee felt like my real name, Teresa an alias for the fake good-girl I was in the outside world. I knew my mother thought Deedee was the real me too because she kept getting it wrong and referred to me as Deedee outside the family context so nobody knew what she was talking about. Still, I held on to Teresa, that ideal girl, made so concretely real by the metal dog tags, the same as the ones soldiers had, given to us in school in first grade with my official name, address, parents names and phone number stamped into the metal. I wore them always on a long chain around my neck even to bed. I knew that should I die in a war, the tags would be matched to my name, safely stored in a fireproof file cabinet somewhere in Washington D.C., and Id be identified.
In sixth grade, my fathers book A Death in the Family was awarded the Pulitzer Prize posthumously. Now my surname, Agee, became a bigger problem than the many mispronunciations Id grown used to correcting Eggy, Ahgee, Aghee. When people heard my name theyd say, Oh, are you related to the writer?, and when I said yes, theyd fall all over themselves about how wonderful my father was, and they couldnt believe they were actually in the presence of his daughter, and how proud I must be, and what was it like having a famous father, and do I remember him, and what do I remember until I wished I had a different last name almost as much as I wished I had my father alive and in my life. It was worse than being named after royalty. As if lineage had more to do with who I was than my own presence in time and space. As though my father was not the man I knew, Daddy.
The first year of high school, I told kids my name was Deedee. Teachers, however, going by the official forms, called me Teresa (Julia had fallen by the wayside from disuse.) In my infatuation with all things French, and the movie Gigi, I changed the spelling of Deedee from D_e_e_d_e_e to D_i_d_i. I mean, the overabundance of es in Deedee Agee was ridiculous. When I said my name, people thought I was saying the name of a corporation or a chemical IBM or DDT. I considered putting the h back in Teresa and exchanging the final a for an e to become Therese, but even D-i-d-i made me feel too sophisticated and worldly-wise for the real me.
At fifteen, away at boarding school, I was Deedee with es to teachers and students alike. For the first time I had one name everywhere I went. Living away from home, I discovered a new unified sense of self.
That Christmas, to my horror, my mother and grandmother decided to take us all to Austria for an old fashioned German Christmas. I pleaded to stay in New York, see old friends, go to holiday parties, and walk up and down MacDougal Street in the new winter coat with the sexy hood Id bought in a thrift shop. In any case, I had to get a passport. The passport, based as it was on my birth certificate, said I was Julia Teresa, a small thing seemingly, but along with missing out on my real life back home, and my mother and grandmother apparently having been jolted into some sort of psychological fugue state by being in their native land they were constantly forgetting what language they were speaking, blathering on in German, insulting hotel personnel while complaining to each other about the lousy service, thinking they were speaking English the whole time not to mention meeting relatives, my own flesh and blood, who claimed still that the holocaust was a lie American propaganda they said well, somehow the new solid identity I thought Id forged at boarding school dissolved, as ephemeral as a disturbed reflection rippling across a pond.
Well somehow I got through high school (four different ones). On college application forms, I filled in the name Julia Teresa Agee. It seemed fitting as I embarked on my adult life to be known by the name on my social security card. I felt the name bestowed a certain standing a legitimization of sorts; like the dog tags. Teachers, referring to their forms, called me Julia, and I decided to try it out. Perhaps my official identity would be an aid to finding out who I was. But I discovered I had to rope off a piece of my mind like a fallow pasture for the sole purpose of realizing when I heard Jool-ya, it might be referring to me. Julia seemed so not me, so a part of a distant nineteenth century European world of privilege and repression, that I soon told everyone to just call me Deedee. I dropped the Agee whenever possible. I liked the idea of being a one named entity like Sappho or Twiggy or Cher.
Midway through college, drowning in my continuing identity crisis, I dropped out, moved in with Bill, my much older boyfriend, decided to have a baby, and got married, changing my name to Bollinger. We moved to my mothers two hundred year old unheated farmhouse in upstate New York, and I got a drivers license and checking account in the name Julia Bollinger. It was a relief to be free of the burden of being the public daughter of. And soon, I discovered an enticing new identity: I was now a secret Agee which strengthened my identity as a writer just as being the daughter of had been a threat.
Shortly after my first son was born, my mother, idly perusing his birth certificate one day, saw Julia Teresa in the box marked mothers name, and said, Why, thats wrong. She said that my official name was Theresa Julia, with an h in the Teresa.
I was shell shocked.
What about all those stories? I said. About the order that sounded better and dropping the h?
She was adamant Theresa Julia was my name. Desperate, I unearthed my own birth certificate and showed her, triumphant, right there in ink on parchment bearing the raised seal of the State of New York, the name Julia Teresa Agee without the h. She peered at the worn paper through her half glasses and a cloud of smoke.
Huh, interesting, she said, off-handedly. Guess they made a mistake.
For years after the end of that marriage, I went by the name Bollinger while Agee lay dormant, an underground secret. But over the years, I ended up marrying five times, twice to the same person, once solely to get health insurance when I needed a minor operation I couldnt afford. Ive gone by the last names Agee, Bollinger, Grossman, Morandi and Sprecher, along with the first names Julia, Teresa and Deedee. The possibilities for varying combinations of these names still plague me. My drivers license says Agee, my passport, Sprecher. I have credit cards in two or three names: Julia Teresa Agee, Deedee Sprecher, Julia Agee Sprecher. When I use a credit card, I have to read it first to find out who I am. When Id occasionally get royalty checks from my fathers work made out to Teresa J. Agee, I always had trouble cashing it. The up side was when people called about my defaulted student loan and asked for Julia as though they were a long-lost friend, theyd tipped their hand; Id say, Shes not home, Im just the cleaning lady, and I have no idea when shell be back.
In the course of applying for adjunct teaching jobs and sending stories out for publication, I decided to use the name Agee again, grateful finally for whatever entre the name might provide. I no longer feel either it dilutes my own identity, or that Im taking unfair advantage. By now there are many people including my childrens English teachers whove never heard of James Agee. The name no longer elicits the same star-struck reaction, and I no longer mind so much when it occasionally does. So I go by Deedee Agee, the name Ive always most identified as me, or sometimes Deedee Agee Sprecher. Ive come to know that many people live with multiple identities, secret personas they shelter and nourish until the time and place are right, and that secrets have a life of their own, and like the ghosts of absent people, are a presence in our lives.