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FIRST PERSON

'90s FAMILY : Trials and Tribulations of Ruth--Make that Rudi

August 23, 1995|RUDI SANDELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Until I was born, my parents were Ruthless, and now they are again.

That is because I officially changed my name from Ruth Helen Oliveto to Rudi (no middle name) Sandell when I married my husband, Scott.

I expected my parents to be angry I had finally, formally rejected the name they gave me. But I didn't think I'd have to explain my decision to my husband's grandmother and the JCPenney catalogue people.

My mother named me after her mother and her uncle's wife. Like many women of her generation, Mom believes children should be named for relatives or religious figures as an act of respect. Giving birth to five children provided her ample opportunity to demonstrate this principle.

My sister was named Veronica Frances, for my mother's patron saint and my paternal grandfather. My oldest brother was Francis Joseph, with a nod to my father.

Expecting gender to follow a logical order, Mom assumed Ruth Helen would arrive the next time around. But the next two children were boys, so the name was shelved for a while. Mom settled for Hugh Anthony (two uncles) and Dante Calvin (a very Italian cousin and my maternal grandfather). Finally, in 1968, I arrived. Seven years after the name was chosen--five years after my grandmother died--it was mine.

As early as I can remember, I didn't feel like a Ruth. My Sunday school experience told me I was neither as selfless nor as hard-working as the biblical heroine. Baby-naming guides said Ruth meant beauty , but what I saw in the mirror was closer to goofy . My siblings were comfortable with their names, but mine didn't fit.

It didn't help that I was the only Ruth at my San Fernando Valley elementary school. The only Ruths I knew of were "Laugh-In" actress Ruth Buzzi and the grandmother I had never met. As I entered adolescence and visited a few convalescent homes with the Girl Scouts, I met several other namesakes, all elderly.

By then, convinced by teen-age angst that I would never be a beauty, I began to complain about my name to my parents. My legendary tantrums usually culminated in my screaming, "All Ruths are old or dead!"

My mother had a few responses, ranging from the religious ("Ruth is a beautiful, biblical name") to the guilt-inspiring ("You should be proud to honor the dead") to the just plain fed up ("You're a disrespectful little brat").

Meanwhile, although I hated my given name, I had no idea what I should be called. I didn't feel any more like a Lisa or a Jennifer than I did a Ruth.

I was 14 when I found my new name, after a summer camp friend teased me by calling me "Rooty." The nickname was supposed to be a joke, but it felt right--young, playful and cute, all the things I wanted to be. When I returned to school in the fall, I modified the spelling and sound, and told everybody that I wanted to be called Rudi.

My parents were furious when friends called and asked for Rudi. More than once, my mother said, "There is no Rudi here. Ruth is here." But the name stuck.

My mother comforted herself by telling me I would use Ruth when I reached adulthood, and I silently agreed the name would fit better when I grew up. But as I got older, I identified less and less with my given name.

When I married and prepared to take Scott's last name, I thought long and hard before deciding to jettison my given name. I had talked for years about doing it, but had never seriously expected to because of my parents' strong feelings. Finally, I chose my happiness over theirs.

Mom and Dad threatened to disown me. They called me disrespectful. Ultimately, they found a way to deal with my new name: They call me Ruth. In other words, we've reached a delicate truce.

But getting past their disapproval was just the beginning. I find that other people also have a problem with my being called Rudi. Scott's grandmother was fine with the name until she learned I had changed it. Then--out of respect for my parents' choice, I guess--she started calling me Ruth. My three older brothers still call me Ruth, apologizing every time I remind them it is no longer my name. I see it as cordial defiance.

My name has caused a few problems outside my family, as well. When I worked as a customer service representative, callers would routinely be flabbergasted. Once I'd identified myself, it usually went something like this:

" Rudi? "

"Yes, sir."

"Your name is Rudi? "

"Yes, sir."

"You don't sound like a man."

"I'm not, sir. How may I help you today?"

"Is that short for something?"

"Rudolphia. How may I help you?"

And the list of indignities continues. Political mailers frequently come addressed to "Mr. Rudi Sandell," even though the voter rolls show me as "Ms." Even the venerable JCPenney catalogue division that knew me well as Ruth H. Oliveto persists in assuming I am male. I guess they think I've undergone a gender transformation.

Even with all the trouble it's caused, my name change has made me a happier person. So call me mister. Just don't call me Ruth.

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