My Grandpa Utter is nothing short of a legend in Hastings, Michigan. He worked at the Kellogg’s cereal factory of Battle Creek for 30 years—from the time he was 25 to the time he was 55—as happy as could be. Every day of his retirement, up until his 80th year, he rode his bike to the YMCA to swim laps, transistor radio and country music in tow. He would round out his day with a trip to the public library and a drink at The Moose. He believes in eating two breakfasts a day and using ketchup whenever possible. I respect him deeply.
Materially, he owns little but photos—easily tens of thousands of them. He has organized them all into albums that I could browse through for hours. He and my grandma together know the story, the punchline, the drama, behind each one.
My grandpa says photography was his hobby, but I think it’s more than that. I think he’s creating the story of our family—something we’re sorely lacking.
My family doesn’t have the first clue where we came from. As far back in time as anyone knows, my family has been in the Midwest, namely Michigan, farming and laboring in factories. A quick search on Ancestry.com tells me most immigrants with the last name “Utter” have come from Sweden, but there are also some from Ireland, the Netherlands, France, Germany and England. But there are very few Utters in the world, and it seems they don’t want to be found.
But my grandpa is determined to have a story. There’s one in particular he likes, a story that has been passed down from his father. According to legend, we are descended from Chief Black Otter of the Potawatomi nation. A Swedish princess came to America, fell in love with him, and, not wanting to be “Mrs. Otter,” changed their name to “Utter,” which she thought more refined.
Now, to be honest, I don’t find any part of this story particularly believable. I have no idea where it came from, and I’ve never embraced it as truth—that feels inappropriate. But I appreciate it. I’m touched that someone cared to even theorize about our origins. I’m even more touched by the effort to rationalize my unfortunate surname.
I’m used to being mocked for my name. It’s been the butt of jokes, the elephant in the room, the proverbial dunce cap. It’s been a source of tears and embarrassment. Grandpa’s Potawatomi Theory, in fact, was the first time I had ever heard my name spoken of positively.
“Utter,” after all, is pronounced “udder.” It’s not YOU-ter or OO-ter or oo-TARE, as much as I want it to be. It’s “utter,” which is to say “udder”—one of the many virtues of the American English accent.
In the second grade, I was called “Dairy Queen” on a regular basis—some kids went so far as to moo at me. I began refusing to write my last name on my homework, and my teachers, sadly, understood completely. By the fifth grade, my peers made the unfortunate connection between udders and breasts. Roll call became my worst enemy—the giggles would begin before the substitute teacher even reached the T-names.
Around that same time, I made a solemn vow to myself that I’d get married someday to a man with a beautiful last name. Maybe something French—I owed myself that much. I would scream “I do!” and amputate the thing once and for all. Voila!
In middle school, my father sat my older brother and me down at the kitchen table for a talk. My brother was an aspiring artist. I wanted to be a scientist or a doctor. My father explained that it might be easier for us, when it came to professional endeavors, to have a different last name. Utter was distracting and unwieldy, altogether unprofessional.
I never thought it was that bad, but I suppose he has a point. I certainly don’t think my name has denied me any opportunities, but “Utter” is a kind of road bump in professional introductions—mostly because I hate saying it.
My father suggested my brother simply go by Kyle Michael (his middle name) or Kyle Michaels. “Now that sounds like an artist.” I could be Kierstin Sloane (my middle name). “Dr. Sloane.” Bottom line: He wouldn’t be offended should we choose to “pull the Utter.”
I still think about doing it. But Utter and I have been through a lot together. And bizarrely, part of what stops me from doing it is my grandfather’s Potawatomi story—not the story itself, which at this point has become something of an inside joke, but the mere fact that my ancestors thought it important to keep the story alive, to embrace the Utter name.
I’m not in any kind of position to comment on the truth of the Potawatomi Theory. I’ll admit it has very little going for it. In particular, there’s overwhelming phenotypic evidence working against it. My grandfather—though relatively tan-skinned with dark hair—has blue eyes. My father is pale with freckles and tightly coiled hair. I’m blonde-ish with green eyes. Of course, looks are not descriptive of ethnicity. But in this case, they’re also not helping.
It’d be nice to get some kind of confirmation. It’d be nice to know where we came from. In the end, though, I will be just as pleased about being Swedish (if that’s the case) as I am about being Potawatomi (if that’s somehow the case) as I am about being both, or being neither. What we are doesn’t matter to me; it only matters that we keep wondering.
“Utter” is a nuisance and a curiosity, but I’m attached. The uncertainty, the speculation, even the tasteless jokes—I’ve come to find it all endearing. My name provides countless opportunities for puns, for rhymes, for bon mots. It’s awkward and unprofessional, but a true treasure trove for the linguaphile. There’s a lactation room in Montana named after my parents. I grow smug at the sight of “utter” or “utterly” in literature. My ears perk up when it’s used in a sentence. I admire the fact that it’s in the dictionary.
It’s an unfortunate surname. But it’s also my family, a trade-off I’m not bitter about in the least.
Maybe I’ll change my last name if I get married someday. Maybe I won’t. But I do know I’ll be telling my children the tale of Chief Otter.