Sunday, October 18, 2009

I Don't Mind Being Named Martha Anymore

On Embracing the Talking Dog—or Silly Girl—in Me

I'm almost fond of Martha Stewart. She's got chutzpah, rising from the ashes of securities fraud. But anyone who's seen the messy piles in my house would know that I loathe housekeeping and hand-woven flower wreaths. I lack that Martha's spit and polish and need for physical order.

I'm not embracing my inner housekeeper here. Yet a recent mention of a children's book called Martha Doesn't Say Sorry! in a New Yorker article got me thinking about my given name, my long-time ambivalence towards it—and the possibility that maybe, just maybe, I'm growing into it.

According to Daniel Zalewski's article, the latest picture-book Martha by Samantha Berger involves a "stubborn" otter. It has a transparent moral message, Zalewski notes, meant to encourage discipline.

But my first reaction was to think, oh, no! Not another wacky animal character named Martha!

There's already Martha the hippo of all those George and Martha books by James Marshall; there's Martha the talking dog of Martha Speaks and other titles by Susan Meddaugh, now a PBS cartoon series.

To be fair, Zalewski's article is about a lot more than potential Martha-bashing; he argues that many "obstreperous" children's books today depict parents as wimps. He also cites a slew of other characters named everything from Olivia to Finn to Lilly. There's no nefarious trend in naming creatures Martha—I think.

But do other people second-guess their name, as I have since childhood? Some do, I know. For those crossing cultural boundaries, often in the most painful way, it's a serious issue. See The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, in which an Indian immigrant's son resists being named Gogol Ganguli. Or talk to any international adoptee, even one as young as my seven-year-old son.

Back in the day, I longed to be Miranda or Antoinette or Angelique. Instead I got stuck with a long-dead grandmother's name, somebody with whom I'd never shared a personal connection.

I hated being a girl named Martha in the 1960s and 1970s. It was right up there with "A Boy Named Sue." In my Bay Area schools, I was the only one among a swath of Kathys and Debbies and Sherrys. There were a few Martas and Maritas, but the Spanish variations seemed to have infinitely more soul than my Anglicized "tha."

Flashback to third grade: It's February. President's Day is approaching, along with my annual dread of what will be shouted at me on the playground: "Martha Washington! Martha Washington? How's George?"

A year later, I'm at Bridget B's pool party, a few months after the Beatles's White Album has been released. I walk into the B family's swanky new house in a new suburban tract of what will eventually become the outer reaches of Silicon Valley—she's got a pool!—and the other girls giggle, as Bridget plays, "Martha My Dear."

I've never heard it before. I'm blushing, and I hate blushing. I suspect Bridget is trying to humiliate me. "It's so cute!" she insists.

I was still a child, but my response then was more complicated than hating "Martha Washington." I was embarrassed by the idea that I could ever be anyone's inspiration. It was even more depressing when I found out later that Paul McCartney wrote the song for his sheepdog.

Flash forward: I'm an adult hanging out with my friends' kids—and later the friends of my son—and these children love to say to me, "George and Martha!" (downcast eyes, sly grins) or "Are you a dog?" (snort, snort). I laugh along, because the kids seem so delighted to meet an actual human being named Martha.

Not so long ago, a friend of mine shakes her head and tells me, "You really don't seem like a Martha, you know?"

I'm guessing that's a compliment. Various baby-name books and websites translate it as "lady" (from the Aramaic "Marta") or mistress of the house. It's a good fit for Martha Stewart but didn't stick to Martha "Calamity Jane" Cannary Burke, frontier hellion of the late 1800s.

By 2008, the name Martha was ranked 617 in popularity, according to the Social Security Administration. At least it made the top 1,000, but Martha has been on a steady decline for a century, with a few spikes around 2000. Emma and Isabella were the most popular girl names in 2008; Madison was fourth, and Olivia came in a hot sixth.

(I feel compelled to point out that, in addition to Martha, many animal characters have old-fashioned women's names like Olivia and Frances—a pig and badger, respectively—as well as Opal and Daphne of the Toot and Puddle universe—also pigs.)

Meanwhile, Namipedia users on the Baby Name Wizard site rated Martha as sounding smart and strong but not young or sexy.

Yet when I think about Martha the hippo or Martha the talking dog—and really take in those wonderful books—I realize that maybe the name fits me better than I used to believe.

Martha the dog can't shut up after she eats a bowl of alphabet soup and gets the gift of human gab. In Martha Speaks, she annoys her family by rambling on as they're watching TV or reading:
"There's a poodle over on Circuit Street I'd really like to play with. He's small, but what a dog! And speaking of small, I'm sure you're all curious about the early days of my life..."
Martha the hippo wears huge print skirts and is George's best friend. She's pictured smoking a cigar and playing a saxophone. In George and Martha Back in Town, she stands on her head on a surfboard. George, the lifeguard, has a tough time reigning her in:
"Very soon George saw that someone was disobeying the rules.
'No horsing around!' he called through his megaphone.
'It's all right!' shouted Martha. 'It's only me!'
By college, I identified with "Martha My Dear." It became an affectionate nickname from some of my closest friends, who would address letters to me as "M.M. Dear." Others still call me Marth or M ("Em").

The most famous of us—Martha Graham, Martha Stewart, the fictional Martha Jones of Doctor Whomake things happen. Martha may even have become cool because of that sexy Doctor Who character, at least in the U.K.

So is it possible that I actually like my old-fashioned, unpopular name?

This is a fate I never could have imagined at fifteen. But it's true. I can save the world with words, especially in the guise of the latest Martha Jones. I'm zany and stubborn and I refuse to apologize. I can't stop talking or writing, and what's wrong with that?

Even Paul McCartney has said Martha was his muse, not just a sheepdog.
When you find yourself in the thick of it
Help yourself to a bit of what is all around you

Silly girl...


  1. Dear Martha,

    It was so fun and refreshing to read this post on a cold Monday.

    I had no idea Martha was such a fluffy and funny name associated with cartoons. For years, I was so fascinated with this name- the Romanian version of it is spelled Marta- that I wanted to name my daughter Martha. I still do, especially now,that I associate it with my writing instructor named Martha, who had such a great impact on the way I look at writing.

    Knowing the highly organized Martha in class I wouldn't have guessed you "loathe housekeeping and hand-woven flower wreaths".

    It's amazing how a brand name or a personal association can change the whole perception of a thing.

    Thank you again for setting-up a good mood this Monday!May you and your readers have a happy Martha week. I will certainly do:)

    Warm regards,

  2. Martha,

    You forgot to mention the Allman Brother's song, "Little Martha," by far the most beautiful guitar duet I know of. There is also Liz Taylor's character in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf...

    To some of us you will always be the quintessential Martha!

  3. I guess you grew up in a very different place from me because you didn't get the whole biblical Martha thing laid on you at an early age. The story of Mary and Martha in the New Testament pretty much set up the stereotype for the name in English-speaking culture. It lines up pretty well with what 19th-century middle and working class Americans wanted in a daughter: hard-working, devout, bossy, a bit of a wet blanket, with great certainty about woman's place being in the home and specifically in the kitchen. In the 20th, the re-alignment of social values that went with urbanization and affluence split that group of qualities in such a way that the character had something to offend everyone. She's too tradition-minded for the progressives and too assertive for the conservatives.

    At the start of the 21st century there is a significant segment of the younger generation that has been raised post-Christian, without exposure to the Bible. In this context, I'm thinking that all it will take is one popular Martha, real or fictional, to bring about a resurgence in the name's popularity. In which case you'll be ahead of your time.

  4. I was aware of the Biblical story of Martha and Mary--Lazarus's sisters--but that didn't endear the name to me at all in 1970s California. Martha was the sister who carped at Christ for having dirty feet, as I recall. Now it seems kind of funny, but when I was younger the combo of bossy conservatism didn't sit well as a model for womanhood.

    You're right, Joan, that in a post-Christian era the qualities of Martha have gotten split in weird ways that don't make much sense.

  5. Martha, I've always loved your name! Actually, I love most old-fashioned names that end in the soft "a" sound--Sara, Anna, Hannah, Laura. I have used that type of name for many of the female protagonists in my stories.

    My siblings and I all had biblical names: Mary, Michael, Sarah, Elizabeth. My brother was called "Mike," and I was called "Betsy"(according to my parents, because it sounded cute). When I was a child in the 50's, this was also the name of a baby doll who wet herself (Betsy Wetsy) and a paper doll in a popular magazine (Betsy McCall). You can imagine the "hilarious" things that were shouted at me on the playground!

    By my mid-teens, when asked my name, I'd say, "Well, I actually hate my name, but it's Betsy." Most people would reply, "Oh, that's so cute!" which reaffirmed how much I hated it. When I met my husband-to-be, he said, "Yeah, I hate that name, too. It's not your real name, is it? Why don't you just use your real name?" Love bloomed...

    Not sure why I didn't think of using "Elizabeth" much earlier. I guess that most of us don't think of our names as something we can change, even if there's another birth-certificate-anointed option waiting in the wings.

  6. Loved this post, Martha. Not just because the writing is fabulous, but also because I related to it. I grew up in the 1950s and 60s in Queens, NY, and I was the only Karen that I knew of. I think I hated my name more because I didn't really want to be in my own family. I wanted to be someone else in some other family. In my secret heart, I was Elizabeth. Now, like you, I'm content with Karen.

  7. Although I do like the name Martha, I can relate. My name is Douglas, which I always disliked. Characters named Douglas in TV shows, plays, cartoons, and movies always seem to be prissy, egghead types. Dougie is even worse, although Doug is tolerable. Still, if I could have whispered in my Mom's ear, I would have suggested Jack.