What’s In a Name?

On December 1st, 1981, my paternal grandfather Milton wrote an eighteen-page longhand letter to my cousin Jeremy. “Dear Jeremy,” it began. “Every story of factual matters on any subject which you are likely to learn, read or hear is almost certain to be a compendium of both real and estimated facts, as well as of vague remembrances and casual (sometimes innocently casual) inventions. In what I now write I shall attempt to distinguish between (or among) them.”

Over the next seventeen pages, he proceeded to outline every fascinating detail that he knew about our family’s genealogy.

A few years ago, Jeremy sent me a message on Facebook quite out of the blue, asking if I’d like a copy of that letter. Milton had passed away in 1985, a year before I was born; I was deeply grateful to Jeremy for offering to share his words with me, approximately thirty years (!) after they’d been committed to paper.

Milton Burton’s last name was originally Bergstein. “The legal name Burton,” Milton explained in his letter, “derives a) from the need that…[my brother] Lewis (née Louis) felt to employ a more ‘American’ name as a sportswriter in his earlier newspaper years and b) from my very realistic need to use such a name during the very trying period of the Hoover depression (about 1929-1932). In that period a name like Bergstein would have necessitated my abandonment of all thought of science.”

Years later, Milton would become a chemistry professor at Notre Dame and founder of the university’s Radiation Laboratory. But in order to build that career at that moment in history, he’d seen the need to make a decisive break from his Hungarian Jewish identity in exchange for something “more ‘American.’ ”

There are unbearable tensions written between Milton’s tidy explanatory lines about his new last name. This is his unique story, and yet it was the story of countless other immigrant families—Jewish and otherwise—as well. He talks about having to “employ” and “use” a different last name, an unimaginably painful “choice” made under the duress of entrenched anti-Semitism. Still, for other groups facing discrimination during that time, a simple name change would never have been enough to level their playing field.

Like I said: unbearable tensions.

The next generations would carry that new last name, and the weight of that specific history, with them—with us.

The day before my wedding, my feet were soaking in a warm, lavender-scented bath at a San Francisco salon; I was surrounded by women who’d shown up to get manicures and pedicures as a form of pre-wedding moral support. My fingers and toes were painted a translucent shade of millennial pink as I found myself answering all of the usual questions: about the floral arrangements, the ceremony logistics, the honeymoon plans.

When someone asked about my last name—whether I’d be changing it or not—I paused to consider the wording of my answer, as the weight of the question hung in the air. For me, it had always felt simple and clear: I’m a Burton—always have been, always will be. There wasn’t a moment where I chose between my current identity versus a potential new one; there wasn’t any choice to make.

I smiled and answered the question simply: “I’m keeping my name.” Everyone uttered their own form of positive assurance, but behind the eyes of the women who’d raised me, I thought I saw some flicker of relief. I’d been assigned this surname at birth, but here I was consciously affirming it three decades later.

In that moment, I’d been asked to claim my name in a way that my soon-to-be-husband would never have to.

This week, I took madeleineburton.com live after five months of painstaking web design. It’s the first time I’ve attached my full first and last names to my creative work.

Ten years ago, I named my blog A Little Ginger because a) it was primarily a food blog, and b) as a 5’2” redhead, it was the most on-the-nose pun I could muster.

A few years later, having lost interest in posting recipes—and having gained interest in photographic storytelling—I changed the name of this blog a second time, to Capsule Storytelling. Time capsules freeze a specific moment in amber, and act as informal archives to preserve memories; capsule wardrobes are carefully edited to include someone’s best, most beloved pieces, eschewing all filler.

Both of these names felt right, until they didn’t.

When I first considered using my own name for this space, the idea felt borderline radical. For years, I’d consciously avoided attaching my identity to my creative output online. An employer might find it! A new acquaintance might find it! I might actually be seen!

To be seen is to be vulnerable, of course, but vulnerability isn’t weakness. So here it is, friends—here’s to being seen this year, and beyond. May you all bring the same unapologetic energy into your 2019 adventures.

Camera: Mamiya 6
Film: Kodak Portra 160

Scroll to Top