August 6, 2022
Hello! Elisa here, lifelong sufferer of name mispronunciations and misspellings. I don’t have it as bad as some, certainly — examples abound, but at the very least you should check out #hownottospelljihae on Instagram, where my cousin-in-law/dear friend posts about the phonetic panic attacks baristas experience every time she orders. It’s gold. My name is more predictable in the kind of trouble it causes. If you know me in real life, you know that my name is pronounced eh-LEE-suh, like “Lisa” with an “eh” in front of it. In other words, it’s pronounced pretty much exactly the way it’s spelled. (Wild, I know.) This hasn’t stopped people from calling me Eliza, Elsa, Alicia, Alissa, and Elise throughout my entire life, and I have learned to respond to each and every one of these variations.
My last name these days is Watson, which is a blissfully easy name to understand and spell. My maiden name, however, was Kiefer, and that name seemed to get folks just as tied up in knots as my first name did. Half the time, people see the name “Kiefer” spelled out on paper and say KAI-fer (with a long “i”). Meanwhile, people who hear the name “Kiefer” almost always write it down as Keifer.
We named our oldest son Kiefer in order to carry on the family moniker. On his thirteenth birthday I called Baskin Robbins for an ice cream cake, and when they asked about the personalization, I made a big deal about the spelling. “It’s Kiefer,” I said. “K-I-E-F-E-R. The I comes before the E. I’m only emphasizing this because people always spell it wrong.” “I before E,” the girl responded. “Got it.” I picked up the cake the next day and, in garish green frosting, beheld the words “Happy 13th Birthday, Keifer!” I don’t think you got it, Baskin Robbins Girl.
Kiefer knows that if he hears someone call out “Hey Kaifer!” he should probably assume they’re talking to him and not just stare blankly into the middle distance. At a certain point in my childhood, I *also* learned not to stare blankly into the middle distance when someone called out a wrong version of my name….As a matter of fact, I can point to the very day I learned that lesson.
When I was in kindergarten I rode the bus to and from school, which felt very mature and terrifying at first and very ordinary after that. My mom and younger sister Emily walked me to the bus stop each morning and met me there each afternoon, and for the first few months of school, all went well. Then came winter, and with winter came giant snowsuits and scarves and hats and a world blanketed in snow. Normal sounds became muted, eyes stung with the cold and the wind, and ordinary activities like riding the bus took on a new edge of strangeness and adventure.
On the afternoon of the first heavy snow of the season, I didn’t get off the bus at my stop. I have no memory of why I didn’t get off. Probably the stop was so covered in snow, I didn’t recognize it, and the parents waiting there were so covered in parkas, I didn’t recognize them. Maybe I was just staring out the opposite window, daydreaming. Maybe I had overexerted myself learning all about the color wheel that morning and I felt the need for a little shut-eye on the ride home. Whatever the reason, the bus drove off with me still on it, leaving my mom and sister standing at the freezing bus stop confused and worried. They trudged quickly home and my mom phoned the school, letting them know her daughter Elisa Kiefer had failed to get off the bus. The school receptionist radioed the bus driver, and the bus driver sighed and stopped the bus and tromped up and down the aisle, asking if an Aliza Kaifer was on board.
Bundled from head to toe in heavy snow gear, eyes peeping out between a scarf and a beanie, I stared up as she passed and I said not a word, because the name she was calling out was not my name. The name she was saying was Aliza Kaifer, and my name was Elisa Kiefer, thank you very much. The driver returned to her seat and radioed back to the school that no, the student they were asking about was not on her bus.
When she got to the end of the line and discovered a little girl still sitting expectantly on a seat halfway back, she put two and two together, and I was returned safely home.
I believe it was then that my parents began a pretty focused campaign to teach me some name-related common sense.
“What if they say Alissa Kiefer?” they’d ask.
“That’s probably me,” I’d say.
“How about Alicia Keeper?”
“That could be me too.”
“Just assume it might be you. What about…..Felicia Fliegenfinder?”
Giggle. “I don’t think that would be me.”
“No, probably not.”
And so on.
I do not know what the scene at home looked like or how my mother felt when, on a blizzardy afternoon in early 1987, she was told that her six year old daughter wasn’t on the school bus OR at the school. I asked her recently, and she said she remembers it being terrible, but also realized with surprise that some of the details have become lost or muddy. However distressing it was at the time, though, we both laugh about it now, because nothing at all was actually wrong that day besides the absentmindedness of a little girl with a hard-to-pronounce name. But back then, not long after Aliza Kaifer Day, someone asked my toddler sister Emily what she and my mom did while I was at school each day. “Well,” she replied, “Mom cries.”