I married an independent woman. Taryn is blunt, bossy, and beautiful, and those who know her even just a little have seen those traits from a distance. She comes from a family whose motto is “Try new things often,” which she embraces fully. Whether it’s making sourdough bread, a crosscut oaken table, or a new friend in the airport terminal line, Taryn is rarely daunted by the trial-and-error process. While my own ambitions span a much narrower scope of interest, her willingness to try new things often has always been incredibly attractive to me. Whether it’s a sprint triathlon, ice-climbing trip, or a new knitting project, inexperience be damned; Taryn meets every new challenge with an optimistic, casual shrug.

When Taryn and I first began talking about marriage, it didn’t shock me when she announced that she preferred to keep her last name. That bummed me out; I can admit that, but I also knew it wasn’t really an argument worth fighting for. I played out the discussion in my head and decided I’d rather start off a happy marriage to Taryn Borst on the right foot than to have even a whiff of resentment going forward with Taryn Meekhof.

If any family members are reading this and getting short of breath right now, calm down; our kids will be Meekhofs. Taryn is also a woman of compromise.

People that don’t see us regularly often assume we share a last name, and it’s never a big deal. We get plenty of Christmas cards and checks addressed to the Meekhofs, and we rarely correct people when they introduce us as such. We just smile and nod and say “hello” and “thank you” when appropriate, and it’s all good.

A couple weeks ago, we celebrated our annual family Christmas party with all of my Meekhof aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins. At this stage, we’re a pretty sizable, raucous, goofy bunch. All of us grandkids have grown up, so in addition to the various girlfriends, boyfriends, fiancés, wives, and husbands, we also have a pretty big litter of great-grandkids running around the gymnasium we rent out.

If you can take your attention off the whizzing scooters and bouncing dodgeballs, Uncle Rick’s baritone laughter and cousin Chad climbing up into the rafters to retrieve a poorly-shot basketball, you’d find my grandma and grandpa at the center of it all, quietly taking it all in and marveling at this small army we’ve amassed. All these people, all connected up the line to Marvin and Margaret Meekhof (an aside: how adorable is that for a couple name?).  It’s a pretty special thing, family.

Incidentally, there are only seven of us in this clan of fifty-some people who actually have the last name of Meekhof. My grandparents had mostly girls, as did my parents, and that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

Normally, twenty-six-year-old grandkids don’t receive gifts anymore when the family’s gotten this large, but my grandma and my aunt Irene pulled me aside to show me a something. It was a box of assorted glassware, each fancily emblazoned with a pointed letter ‘M.’

“These were a wedding gift to your grandpa and me,” she explained. “They’ve mostly been in storage for the last few years, and we really don’t need them anymore.”

“We just thought they really should go to you,” Aunt Irene added.

It wasn’t stated aloud, but the message between the lines was this: You’re the last Meekhof. Twenty-six years old, recently married, recently a homeowner…it’s time to pass on this family heirloom.

There was also a painful, subtle reminder in that box. Ten years ago, my cousin passed away when he was twenty-six. I was fifteen at the time. Though I had been to a few funerals, going to my cousin’s was a much deeper level of sadness.

We all miss you, Joe Meekhof.

As we got older, our family grew. We celebrated numerous weddings and great-grandchildren together. It didn’t really hit home until my sisters married their high-school sweethearts (we Meekhofs have a knack for that), that I was now the last remaining grandchild with the family name, and it led me to take that a lot more seriously. How significant is a last name? To what extent do we owe it to our ancestors to fight to keep that last name? If your name is, say, Thomas David Brighton XVII, would changing your name invoke a curse or break one? Is Chad Ochocinco’s great-great-grandfather turning in his grave?

It’s a little ironic. Growing up on a farm—owned by my mother’s family—I wished so often that I’d been born a Versluis. Ever since I was big enough to lift a tray of strawberries, I worked on the farm with cousins, uncles, great-uncles, second-cousins, third-cousins, and my grandfather—every one of whom bore the last name Versluis. That cookie barely crumbled at all. Being a Versluis implied hard work, sharp wit, generosity, a robust vocabulary, and graceful contentment toward life. For many years, I craved that identity more than anything. There’s a palpable persona exhibited by everyone I worked with on the farm, widespread enough to convince me that it must be in our DNA. I had just as much Versluis blood in my veins than they did, but I couldn’t help but feel like I was always one hurdle behind in terms of closeness. Looking back, it was nothing but a perceived, psychological setback, but it felt tangible for some time.

On top of that, I wasn’t nearly as close with my Meekhof relatives at the time. The Versluises were more than family to me; they were my neighbors, my coworkers, my bosses, and often my closest friends. On the flipside, all of my Meekhof cousins were older, and I was too shy to put myself out there at family gatherings. Age differences matter more when you’re young.

It’s different now that we’re all adults. There are so many in-laws and significant others and great-grandchildren to keep track of now that it’s difficult to run out of conversation topics. I have to give credit where credit is due and say social media has brought us closer together. I see that Kyle’s been tying flies like a fiend and hitting the rivers, Chad and Keisha just got back from a cruise, and Matt’s crafting new hard cider recipes for his business. Meanwhile, I field questions about my latest winter canoe trip, work contracts in the Upper Peninsula, and where the best place to go hiking near Middleville might be. From someone who wasn’t always as extroverted as he should’ve been at these gatherings, it’s been a helpful development.

I’ll say one more thing about the Meekhofs. For as much as I am a farm boy at heart, I think I owe my most visible identifier to my dad and his goofy, fun-loving, adventurous family. My deep love for camping, hiking, traveling, and taking adventures can be traced up through that line, and back down through various cousins, aunts, and uncles. My grandparents leaned hard into the cross-country RV culture in their retirement, and everyone else seems to have found their own niche in the outdoors as well. Some fish, some ski, some travel to other countries as often as they can, and some blow up inner tubes and sit with a beer in hand. But it’s our keen fascination with these experiences that bind us all together.

I am truly proud to be a Meekhof and carry on the name. But in reality, I’m no more “Meekhof-like” than anyone else in my family; the traits we exhibit and pass on are often much more resilient than our lineage’s constantly changing surname. The way I see it, tracing your ancestry back via your father’s father’s father’s father (and so forth) is just one single path out of dozens you could take to find out what makes you who you are genetically.

I am a Meekhof; I am a Versluis. My kids will be Meekhofs, but they’ll also have equal parts Borst, Dykstra, and Versluis blood, not to mention countless other percentages that ultimately split the pie into pretty trivial slices. Names are important, so long as we remember we represent a lot more than just one.

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