Better Life

Last Name, Browne

Last Name Browne
With just one child, a daughter, I’ve recently come to grips with the fact that it’s the end of the line for the Browne family name.

I’ll never forget the first time I heard it. My daughter, then still a toddler, had just returned home from a walk with our babysitter. Summoning me over, our sitter asked her, “What’s your name?” With the same focused determination she brought to refusing to go to bed on time, our daughter spoke her given name and surname together for the first time.

In the expected proud-parent way, we clapped and smiled—it felt momentous. Our daughter knows her full name! But when I thought about it later, the moment seemed significant in a different, more unsettling way. I realized that my child is the last Browne in our lineage—and that when she presumably marries and changes her name one day, our last name, at least in terms of our family, will vaporize. She is the last Browne.

Until now, I’d never had particularly strong feelings one way or another about my last name. In fact, it came with some tarnished history. The farthest back any of us traced it was to my grandfather on my father’s side, the notorious James R. Browne. According to one newspaper clipping from the early 1900s, he served in the “air service,” and he and my grandmother, Margaret Conklin, married in 1919.

But soon after, something went tragically wrong. Family lore has it that Browne deserted his new wife and moved from New Jersey to New York City; she supposedly went searching for him there and came up empty. (In the pre-Internet and pre-cell phone age, one can only imagine what it must have been like to take a bus into Manhattan and just try to find someone.) According to their wedding announcement, which my grandmother saved for decades, Browne was about to re-enlist when they wed, so perhaps he simply went back into the service. Whatever the case, James Browne vanished—to the point where, in 1926, a Jersey court was forced to print a public announcement in a local newspaper demanding he return to the state for his own divorce hearings. I never saw or met the man myself; neither did anyone else in our immediate family.

Despite that shadowy back story, certain aspects of my name still felt special. The extra “e” lent it a distinctive flair that made it seem more sophisticated (and British) than the blander “Brown.” As a kid, I liked the fact that I shared a surname with Jackson Browne, whose records I started buying as soon as I began saving up enough allowance to afford LPs.

Periodically, I had to deal with the downside of “Browne.” The inevitable misspellings that continue to this day. (I’m even listed as “Brown” in the bibliography of a recent book that cites one of my articles.) The way I generally have to spell out the name when I’m picking up a prescription at my local drug store so that they don’t just type in “Brown.” Even the occasional mispronunciation that turns it into “Brownie.” (A few years ago, when I was assigned to interview Jackson Browne, I brought up our shared last names and he immediately flashed on his own “Brownie” moments as a kid.)

Still, it was my name, and for reasons of heritage, I assumed it would be around long after I was gone. Now it doesn’t look that way anymore. One of my older sisters, who has since passed away, married and reverted to Browne after her divorce but never had any children. My other sister has two daughters, both of whom have the last names of their fathers. And now, given I only have one child and that child is a girl, I’ve unintentionally doomed “Browne” to extinction.

Of course, the name will survive; there are probably millions of Brownes in the world, even if none of them are directly related to me. Still, when I first realized what would happen, I was taken aback. We all mull over our lasting impact on the world and what sort of footprint we’ll leave. But most of us assume that even if our work and legacy vanish, our name will not. It will be carried on and will endure, and sometime in the future, we’ll pop up on some family tree of people with the same name.

That wasn’t going to be the case here. But what to do? I could try to work harder in order to become more “famous” and leave a sizable mark on the world in order for “Browne” to sail into the surname sunset with a bang. My wife and I could adopt a baby boy—which neither of us were inclined to do given our advancing ages. I could attempt to convince my daughter to hold onto her last name even if and when she married and then force her children to keep the name. But those ideas felt vain or simply ridiculous.

In time, I resigned myself to the end of our particular Browne. Given what James Browne wrought on our family and my grandmother – her second husband, an alcoholic and abuser, was even worse – maybe it was best to put it to rest. Perhaps one day in the future one of my daughter’s children will see a copy of one of my works on a shelf and ask, “Why do you have all these books by this guy Browne?” And perhaps my daughter will say: Well, that was my father, and here is the history of that name, and it had a good run.