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I am an Alena who wasted an entire girlhood longing to be a Susan.
Susans – when I was growing up in 1950s Toronto – were enchanting creatures, with perfect ponytails that bobbed saucily when they walked.
In school at lunch time, Susans took dainty bunny bites out of Saran Wrapped crustless egg-salad triangles. At night they slept in beds with chenille bedspreads, dreaming their sweet Susan dreams under crisp top sheets that folded neatly back over their blankets. And their mothers made casseroles and understood the complexities of roast beef and lump-free gravy.
Alenas, on the other hand, had straight hair parted on one side and held back with a clip.
Alenas ate ham or salami on rye bread, cut haphazardly in two, and bundled up in wax paper. Alenas slept under massive eiderdowns that looked obscene to the casual observer. And Alena mothers thought that casseroles were pernicious concoctions made from decomposing leftovers, and that roast beef lacked brio.
The mothers of Susans were pretty. And modern. They had seductive pageboy hairdos that were spit-curled at night. They smoked cigarettes, and drank cocktails before dinner.
Alena mothers wore their hair pinned up in chignons, and drank wine with their Wiener schnitzel (“It’s called a wiener what?”) or their goulash (“Gooo-lash!? You’re lying!”).
The parents of Susans didn’t speak a foreign language at home. They didn’t have funny accents either. And when they asked strangers perfectly straightforward, simple questions in English, like “Where is the bathroom, please?” no one ever replied, frowning, “I’m sorry but I don’t speak French.”
Susans were not Alenas. And Alenas definitely were not Susans.
But hang on. What am I thinking? There were no Alenas, plural, when I was growing up. There was just one. Me.
“Mary, Diane, Janice, Carol, Kathy, Susan, ALENA,” went our class roll call. Lah-di-dah-di-lah-di-THUNK.
“Ewwww, what kind of a name is THAT?” other children would often ask.
Alena and Vera, I knew from endless telling, were my father’s best friend’s twin daughters, killed in wartime. And since my father had once been engaged to a vamp called Vera, Alena had seemed the far less contentious choice when I came along.
Properly pronounced in Czech, it sounded quite reasonable: Ah-le-na, with the accent on the first “a” and a short “e.” But skimmed over a 1950s English-only palate, it became Aleeeeena.
I hated it. Why, oh why, could I not have been born a Susan, I wondered wretchedly – and never more than on gummy summer evenings when neighbourhood parents would call their offspring in from twilight games of hide-and-go-seek.
“Time to come in now!”
Then, one after another in a chorus up the street:
Just as the last grown-up had finished barking, “I MEAN IT! NOW! OR ELSE!” and that silent moment when kids assess the seriousness of parental threats had passed, my father would put his lips to some invisible megaphone and bellow, “AlenKO! Ve are vaiting!”
AlenKO. The hideous diminutive vocative. Wasn’t Aleeeeena bad enough?
It didn’t matter to me that he was a respected member of the legal department of a large corporation; or that my mother had been raised by a nanny and tootled around by a chauffeur. What mattered was that I didn’t fit in, the way Susans did.
My Susan aspirations, such an affliction in childhood, are purely vestigial now. Canadian society has become less rigid and more international: White bread – which my parents regarded as truly deviant – has been overtaken in pre-eminence by whole wheat and chichi artisanal; bedspreads, covers and top sheets have given way to low-maintenance duvets; mothers – and even fathers – take pride in their global recipe repertoires; and everyone agrees that if little androgynous Madison or Taylor or Hunter is to succeed in life, she/he must learn to speak a second language. It’s all so belatedly comforting.
One afternoon last summer in Prague, the magnificent baroque capital of the Czech Republic – home to 95 per cent of the world’s Alenas – I sat in lambent sunshine near the 10th-century Vysehrad Castle and watched a small girl suddenly escape her mother’s clutches and race after a puppy.
“Alena! Alena!” the mother shouted, in alarm.
And I finally had to admit that Alena was, on balance, a pretty swell name.
Alena Schram lives on Amherst Island, Ont.