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Why my name is Bates

Eventually I get the questions;

Someone will take my business card and startle a little;
“Oh, Bates is your last name? I’m sorry, I’ve been calling you by your last name. I didn’t know”.

Or, friends will meet my family, and look at me a little funny,
“Your parents and siblings call you by your last  name?”

Or, local acquaintances will stop me and say
“I always thought Bates was your married surname, but I saw some photos of you as a child the other day in a book about Aspen, and your name was noted as Bates even when you were little. I can’t imagine you were adopted; you look so obviously like the rest of your family.”

So here is the explanation.

I have extraordinarily clear early-childhood memories from within a few days of birth. My mother was kept at the hospital for two weeks after I was born and I recall being carted around the house by my father in a large basket. Once or twice a night and he would cook up warm formula or me, and would park me around the house during the day. With my mother absent, he made sure that he and my older siblings held me a lot. My siblings squirmed, which was amusing. My grandmother came for a couple weeks and ran the washing machine non-stop, which was irritating.

My Dad had a lot of things to do, and arriving as the last of five children in the household was pretty much like arriving into the middle of a three-ring circus. I was amazed all the time. Of particular interest was the intermittent arrival of customers for my father’s jewelry business. Strangers would sweep into the house and change the very air around us, bringing with them parts of their own reality, different from ours.  This affected me in a way that was almost hallucinatory, and impressed on me throughout the rest of my life how we can change our surroundings just with our attitudes.

When I was about fourteen months old and learning to walk, I frequently lurked in the dark quiet under our massive oak dining table. This table had large struts, which I could reach easily, and hand-over-hand myself with around its’ perimeter. Underneath was a large empty expanse which I viewed as my private cave within our busy household. This day I was pre-occupied with a problem; I liked the name that my parents had given me, but my name was Bates. What should I do? I didn’t want to offend them, but I felt certain that I should tell them. Thank you, but my name is Bates.

I overlooked that infants don’t really make sensible language sounds until they are about two years old. Nobody really understood a word I was saying for quite a long time. I persevered.  Eventually they got it. Our household was ruled by children and my siblings took it in stride that my name was Bates. It was a little more difficult for my parents. My mother found out right away that if she didn’t introduce me correctly, then I would correct her in public. So ensued many years of “This is Merri Jess (my given name) but she likes to be called Bates”… embarrassed pause.

With so many children in the house, my early home life was chaotic and my parents were overwhelmed. To survive I became independent and self-directed. The first day of kindergarten I was forgotten in the rush of the other four children getting to school. But I was ready.  I woke myself up, dressed, and walked to kindergarten by myself. When they called roll and I heard “Merri Jessica Hayes”, I stood up and said “Bates”. When I walked home hours later, my family had only just noticed I was missing..

It was the 1960’s and in public grade school I was placed in an experimental school program called the ‘Ungraded’. I stayed in that program from second to seventh grade. It was a small school-within-a-school and while everyone within it knew my name as Bates, whenever we had to join the rest of the student body for shots, eye exams and tests, my legal name was called out. So most of the people I grew up with remained out of the loop as to my true identity. It still shocks me today when I run into someone like that whom I’ve known since I was five and they call me ‘Merri’. I always wonder what the ____?

Because my mother’s name was also Mary, many organizations like the library, the doctor, the dentist hyphenated or added the name ‘Bates’ to my records to differentiate our records. In every other avenue, I likewise insisted that ‘Bates’ be present or first in my documented naming. When I turned eighteen this blossomed into a problem of epic proportions: I couldn’t file medical insurance claims because my policy (with legal name) did not match my doctor’s records files. I couldn’t cash a paycheck because the payee name did not match my driver’s license. My high school diploma and transcripts did not match my legal name and some colleges refused to accept them. There were dozens of variations of my four names floating around in all of my pertinent documents. I couldn’t see any way to fix the mess and in frustration I legally changed my name to Bates. Just Bates. We had Madonna, Cher, Sting, and so I thought we could have just Bates.

This was short-sighted. The world’s data bases are not set up for single name conventions. And neither are people’s imaginations. Everywhere I had to give my name ensued some kind of a scene and explanation. To fill in the blanks in computer entries, people used various words. I wound up with numerous  aliases including  ‘Norman Bates’ becoming associated with my social security number. Credit agencies viewed this dimly and refused me credit. Many years of painstaking corrections and documentation eventually resolved the tangle. My son was born out of wedlock, and his father gave him his first name, and I gave him ‘Bates’ as his surname. When my husband and I eventually married I did not take his name. This was a little unhelpful as our little family of three had an ongoing confusion of mis-matched names. Anything legal required a long explanation and a handful of documents.

I kept the single name Bates for twenty years, from ’81 to ‘01. In 2000 when my family decided to move to Seattle we all saw this as an opportunity to get back to something normal in a legal naming sense. Before our departure my husband Steve Solomon legally changed his name to Steven Bates, and I added a first name to myself ‘Jessica’ which had been my middle given name, but this was really an inside joke: I’d been having to explain for twenty years:
“My name is jus’ Bates”. So now I could say:
“My name is Jess’ Bates!” And my son got to keep the name he had always had: Tamas Bates

Big sigh of relief. Until I came back to Aspen and now everybody is really confused.

“Jess? What? Can I still call you Bates?”
“But aren’t you a Hayes?”
“I’m confused; were you married or adopted? And why does your Son call you Bates?”

Ok; anybody who knows me as Bates does not need to change. That has always been my name and always will be, and I sign my e-mails that way. People new to my life tend to call me Jess, because they find it awkward to call a woman by such a masculine surname. It doesn’t make any difference to me; I like both names and respond equally to them. But if you call me ‘Merri’, I’ll wonder where the hell you have been.


2008 Jess Bates
Reproduction allowed with attribution
jessbates (at)