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  • My brother and I were raised by our grandparents, who had a different last name than we did.
  • When he decided he wanted to change his last name to theirs, I didn’t understand at first. 
  • I wanted to keep the connection we had to our parents.

It was 1987, though I still remember it like it was yesterday. The chair didn’t fly across the room, which was my intention, but merely fell over with a thud in the direction of my target.

“Miss DeSimone!” the teacher yelled.

I wanted to tell him that one of the boys had made fun of me with the mocking taunt, “At least I have parents.” This was something I would hear in a million variations throughout my life. The boy had a mother and father. Later in the year, he would have a basement party with boys on one side and girls on the other. I would publicly forgive his current indiscretion while privately holding onto it through adulthood, just for an invite to the party.

I did not have parents. One was dead, the other walked away. My grandparents raised me and my brother, Jamie. He is three years older. I don’t remember the first time he broached the subject of taking their last name, Douglas, but I remember when it was decided.


I didn’t understand when my brother took my grandparents’ last name

The name belonged to the step-grandfather raising us alongside our biological maternal grandmother, and was of Irish origin. We were French, Norwegian, and Italian. To me, it felt like taking the name was a betrayal of our heritage — but that wasn’t what stung the most. Instead, taking the name also felt like my brother’s lack of allegiance to the parents who shared our DNA.

Jamie was already my grandparents’ favorite. He was wild and beautiful. I was the responsible one. Predictable. Quiet. Boring. Cross-eyed. Why did he need to take their name too?

As we sat down to dinner, a nightly ritual all those years ago, the radio hummed in the background with talk of sports or God. My grandmother finished chewing and announced, “Jamie wants to change his name to Douglas.”

Nicole Johnson and her brother, Jamie.

Nicole Johnson now understands why her brother Jamie changed his last name.

Courtesy Nicole Johnson

Ugh, I wouldn’t share my name with anyone if my brother changed his. I imagined them asking, “Last name?” at the dentist or doctor. Douglas, they would assume. DeSimone, my grandmother would say. Explanations would be necessary. They had been since I could speak.


“I live with my grandparents,” was a line I repeated as often as my name. I came to resent my friends for their simple stories and normal nuclear families.

“Do you want to change your name, Nicole?” After she shifted her food around on her half-empty plate, my grandmother added, “You don’t have to.”

My last name felt like the last connection I had to my parents

I was sure they wanted me to, even if they never admitted it. They couldn’t understand why I wanted to keep the name of an addict, a man who left his children. What I couldn’t explain was that if I didn’t hold onto DeSimone, I would disappear. My history would as well. I had parents once, even if it was just for a little bit. My name proved it. It was the only thing we shared.

I was seven when my mother died. She overdosed just before she was supposed to head off to rehab. Even though she and my father were no longer together, she’d still had his name. It didn’t matter that she’d run off to California with her biker boyfriend, leaving her children in Boston to be raised by other people.


The last memory I had of my mother was of a crib and an apartment and spilled milk that my brother tried to pour for me. It may not even be real. I had no mother or father, but I had the name. It was real.

A few months after that dinner, Jamie and my grandparents went to court so that he could legally become a Douglas. My grandfather’s family celebrated. I watched, vowing to never give up my name, even when I married.

Nicole Johnson with her brother and grandfather in front of a birthday cake.

Nicole Johnson didn’t understand at first why her brother Jamie would want to have the same last name as his grandparents.

Courtesy Nicole Johnson

What I didn’t realize then was that my brother’s history with my parents was different than mine. He had more time with them. My brother also had an unbelievable memory, which was both a blessing and a curse.

Maybe for Jamie, being a Douglas was a way to finally be part of a real family. While I wanted to hold on to my name because it was all I had left, my brother needed to let it go. Looking back now, it seemed so important at the time, but it was just a name.


And eventually, though I’d promised myself in that courtroom I’d never give it up, I eventually did let it go to be part of a family, too. The one where I would be a mother who stayed and married a man who would stay as well. The one where I would have a house in the suburbs. With two daughters and two sons, and a dog and a cat, building something greater than the nuclear family I’d always envied. I took my husband’s name and my children’s name. It was passed on to him by his father, though at some point it was shortened and Americanized, and Johansson became Johnson.

I suppose we all want to fit in and belong, but our name is only a smart part of that. Maybe my brother knew this long before I did.