By Ellie Jacobi
I remember, as a 5-year old, walking two blocks to kindergarten and sitting on the classroom floor with all the other kids. The teacher began calling our names for attendance, and pronounced an unfamiliar name while looking at me. The last name was correct, but who was this Elvora? I soon realized it was supposed to be me, although since I had been born, I was called Joan. When I came home and asked, I learned that Joan is my middle name. I felt like two people – one at home and one at school, until my parents got on board and began calling me Elvora, too – especially when I misbehaved. I got used to it, but never liked that strange name that none of my friends had ever heard either. And often my father called me “Sparkie”, which I understood as a nickname and liked.
I am not sure how my parents forgot to tell me the name on my birth certificate, but we were a rather unusual family. My father made the name up and originally used it for my mother when she was appearing on stage as Madam Elvora, the astounding memory expert.
After I was born, Mother switched to Madam Alva, because my dad wanted to extend the name Elvora into the future through me. And, besides, Alva was closer to her real given name, Alvina, a name she never used either. She said a baby seemed more like a Joan to her than an Elvora, but now that I was in school, I was old enough to use my real first name.
Names figured into this family of performers at many levels. My sister and I did an acrobatic act in our early years and were called The Bergorettes. This, of course, was our dad’s invention again.
But Bergor was also a changed name. When we were born, my sister and I had the last name of Goldenberger. This seemed too long for stage use by a magician and escape artist, so my father just divided it in two and then changed the second e to an o to make it different from all other Bergers. Of course, he didn’t think to make the change legally until I was in kindergarten, so my older sister had a similar challenge in hearing an unfamiliar last name spoken by both her kindergarten and first grade teachers. Her first name, Monona, was the same as the name of the lake two blocks from the school. But, unlike me, she liked her name. It had a nice sound, it represented a beautiful lake nearby, and at that time it was unique among her peers.
I might mention parenthetically that my mother also made name changes for herself. She began life as Alvina Wilhelmina Hedvich Topel, and when she married my father added Goldenberger to the list, making it sound almost like a full sentence. She later changed it to Alvina Wilma Bergor. The Wilma got lost in just a “W”, with no one really knowing what that stood for, and everyone called her “Al” or “Alva”.
By the time I got to High School, a neighbor boy started called me Ellie and it stuck with all friends and family, except my Aunt Olivia, my Dad’s sister, who refused to call me by a nickname. But then, she was an opera singer who had changed her name from Olive Goldenberger to Olivia Monona, and who didn’t seem to mind at all when her nieces called her Aunt Nona, also a nickname. Anyway, I liked my new nickname. It felt more like me.
When I married, I thought about how to do this name thing. First, I began hyphenating and was Ellie Bergor-Jacobi. But that seemed too long, and I didn’t really identify with Bergor. After all, it wasn’t my birthname. So I tried to drop it. But Aunt Nona asked me specifically to keep Bergor in my legal name, since it was one-of-a-kind. Because I had defied her with the common use of Ellie, I agreed, and legally became Elvora Bergor Jacobi. This was not quite pleasing to me either because it meant dropping “Joan”, which had good memories. At first I tried to keep Joan, too, but four names seemed just too long.
I am not about to make any legal changes at this stage of life. It is probably enough that I have trained friends, family and even doctors, dentists and my Credit Union to refer to me as “Ellie”. A few friends know my secret real first name, but, bless them, do not use it.
© 2022 Ellie Jacobi
Ellie is a native Madisonian, but a world citizen member of the Baha’i Faith.