My birth certificate reads: Jenifer Ann Hanson. My parents told me, when I was young, that they spelled Jenifer with one “n” so that they could call me Jenny but spell it J-e-n-i. Until I was in graduate school, everyone in the world called me Jeni. Once at the University of Iowa, my faculty called me Jenifer because that was the name on the class lists, and I didn’t bother to correct them. I liked the new identity that going by my full name provided. Jeni was young, uncertain, self-conscious, girl-y. But Jenifer was a mature and professional woman. Pre-1986: Jeni. Post-1986: Jenifer.
A lot of other life-altering events and processes took place post-1986 as well. Including an almost complete break with the friends who had been important in my life until then. I held onto family, and one or two people from graduate school. Every five years or so, I’d be in touch with my college roommate, Vicky Powers Wong. But other than that, there was a defining line that broke my life into two halves: before and after. Some of those relationships ended in the normal course of life events which take us into new arenas, keep us busy with the daily tasks of living, and generally make it difficult to maintain contact (especially in those days, before cell phones, text messages and facebook). Others ended over hurts, breakups, misunderstandings. And some just from my own laziness about staying in touch, and friends who eventually gave up when I clearly was making no effort.
After a while, I realized I missed these people who had been such a part of my formative years. By then, though, I didn’t know how to bridge the gaps and I lacked the self-confidence to believe that they would want to have me in their lives again. There were no high school or college reunions for me…well, there was one disastrous reunion at Clarke where my nerves led me to drink too much and say exactly the wrong thing to everyone I saw. That cemented my belief that the past was sealed to me, and since no one would speak to me by the brunch on Sunday I know I wasn’t imagining it!
This summer, when I least expected or looked for it, reconnection has happened. I owe much of it to facebook, the rest to people with loving and forgiving hearts. While each person I’ve reconnected with has been a joy and gift, there are three in particular to whom I owe a debt – Mike, Carol, and Marty. And here’s why: these three people knew me intimately at times in my life when I was both my best and worst self. They saw me grow, strive, learn…they also saw me smoke, puke, make a fool of myself in public. They always believed in the person I could be, even at times when I was far from behaving like her. And after years of silence, these three who have reason to shun overtures from me, welcomed me back into their lives as if I am my best self now.
As part of this incredible summer, people from the before and people from the after have been meeting one another. For me, this has been a little surreal at times (as it was for Mike when everyone knew his name before my introduction). When my sister Gwen’s family finally met the Dennis family, after more than a decade of hearing about one another, I was surprised by how much fun we had (and that my neices think its a good idea for us all to vacation together next summer). Suddenly, people who have always known me as Jenifer have decided they have permission to call me Jeni — and those who have always called me Jeni have adamantly refused to call me anything else, unless they are making a point. There is no longer a separation between people based on the name they use for me.
More important, I feel like there has been a reunification within myself, as stunning on a personal level as the reunification of Germany was on an international level. I am whole in a way I wasn’t before – I embrace all versions of my name, my self. There are still unmended relationships from my past, a couple of people who haven’t accepted my friend requests. But I want Carol, Marty, Mike — and all of the rest of you who have taken me back into your graces — to know how grateful I am. The truth about real relationship is this: how I feel about myself and/or you in a particular moment may vary. But below that, in the deeper always of my heart, there is love.