Valley Voices

What’s in a name? From starched formality to self-acceptance, it must be Pauline

The sign in Carmel that bears Pauline Sahakian’s first name.
The sign in Carmel that bears Pauline Sahakian’s first name. Courtesy

My name flows from my lips with a puff of breath and ends softly like floating silk. Pauline. It means small, petite, and fits my short stature. As a child, my name sounded formal, a dinner table set for six, starched white linen table cloth, crisply folded napkins, silverware lined up like soldiers. “Proper” is the word that comes to mind, also “old-fashioned.” I hated that my parents named me a woman’s name, someone who carried a handbag and wore sturdy pumps. It did not suit a child who climbed trees, jumped rope, played kickball and baseball in the street, and roller-skated while holding on to the neighbor boy’s bike rack.

“Paul…EEEEEEEE…n!” I can still hear my mother’s high-pitched voice traveling south on Arthur Avenue. Her wail started as bass, rising to soprano like Minnie Pearl’s “HowDEE!” The sound of my name blown from her lips, echoing down the street, sent me racing around the block, along the side of our corner house, into the front yard, and up the pine tree, away from her searching eyes. There I sat, nestled between the branches until I heard the slam of the front screen door. Only then would I climb down and enter the house through the back door, asking innocently, “Were you calling me?”

“Why couldn’t I have been named Polly or Paula?” I asked my parents. I wanted a perky, spunky name. Instead, I was saddled with the smell of lavender and moth balls. It was a name that conjured images of crocheted sweaters and knitted shawls, a fully-grown name that entered homes with a handshake and carried trays of Armenian coffee and pastries to company. It was a blue-haired lady’s name whose smile evoked wrinkles and crinkles around mouth and eyes.

Pauline Sahakian Courtesy photo

“What’s wrong with your name?” my father responded. It was after all the female version of his name. I’m certain he had hoped for a Paul junior. Unfortunately, by the time junior arrived, I had used up the name. I would have readily returned it, but that did not seem to be an option. I couldn’t hurt his feelings so I would simply shrug and say that it was so old-fashioned or that it was so long. I didn’t even have a middle name, though my sister and brother both did.

When my friends and I played “movie star,” I chose Debbie (Reynolds) or Betty (Gable) or Doris (Day), or Elizabeth (Taylor). These were solid American girl names, sweet names like Pam and Nancy and Rita who lived across the street. They were the names I called my paper dolls when I dressed and undressed them. They were names that played hopscotch and jump rope and cried out, “Tag! You’re it!” They were the names of the giggling girls in my elementary school classrooms along with Carol and Linda and Cathy. Though I giggled, too, and skipped home from school, I was called staid and sober Pauline by all who met me, not ever Paula or Polly.

As an adult, I have finally grown into the length and weight of my name. It no longer drapes over me like January’s dense Valley fog, heavy with gloom. Today, my name even makes me feel tall, though it means the opposite, petite to be exact. Yet, the length of it gives me a sense of importance — a formal name, an elegant evening dress. The sounds of the letters together float like gossamer. I especially love the sounds as they glide from the breath of an Englishman — my former trainer at the gym, to be more precise. He rolled the beginning syllable, giving it a musical tone, a long “o” singing “Poline,” instead of the flat, hollow “ah” sound of American speech. The lovely Irish folks I met in Connemara one summer also spoke my name with a long “o,” adding a lilt at the end. When I visited Rio de Janeiro, the natives elongated the first part into “Powelleena,” again a softer, more exotic version. And a street in the city of Manaus was even named after me: Paulina. (Well, not after me, but you know what I mean.) I took a picture of that street sign, and my husband shot a photo of me in a passage way in Carmel that is named Paso de Pauline.

Though some of my friends do call me “Paulina,” I no longer mind plain Pauline. This is not to say folks do not confuse my name. “Pauline,” I say to the Starbuck’s cashier who promptly writes “Colleen” on the paper cup before passing it to the barista. Other cashiers have written “Polly,” not hearing the ending sound amidst the grinding and steaming vibrations arising from the coffee machines. But once they know it, people tend to remember my name because it is uncommon. And that’s a good thing, I’ve decided.

I have gradually grown into my grown-up name, now a woman with wrinkled eyes and permanent creases, though the hair will never be blue. I do not turn cartwheels or stand on my head (though I do Pilates twice a week). Nor do I jump-rope or skip or roller skate. As a grandmother, I view formality as not so boring but rather a sign of elegance. A napkin folded crisply on a table setting can take the lovely shape of a flower or a bird. A starched table cloth is chic, pleasing to the eye. There is calm to such order, to the alignment of silverware and the balance between wine and water goblets. As I age, I have also learned to find balance in my nature — aligning spunky with serene, exotic and vibrant with the staid and proper Pauline.

Pauline Sahakian is a retired Clovis Unified English teacher, Fresno State composition and education instructor, and UC Merced writing project director. She was the 1994 Fresno County Teacher of the Year, CA Teacher of the Year Finalist, and 2016 CSU Fresno Noted Alumni Award recipient. Email: