What’s in a name?
Editor’s note: Su Lum is on vacation. Here is a column that ran a few years ago.
By Su Lum
Now and then someone asks me the derivation of my name, which has a distinctly Oriental ring to it.
My natal name was Susan Fowler (English: killer of birds) – no middle. By the time I went to school it had turned into Sue Fowler and in ninth grade I shortened it to Su.
I’d like to think I did this in the interest of efficiency and speed (why be burdened by a silent e?), but it more likely came from a desire to make a fresh start in high school: a different building, different teachers, many more students and a new identity.
As I remember it, it just Happened, without any particular fanfare or conscious decision. “Why not spell it Sioux?” my father teased.
My next and favorite name was Su Gilligan, and after that brief, early marriage collapsed I kept it. When I started dating Wallace Burton (WB) Lum we called ourselves W. Subie Lill until a judge with a lisp married us (“Do you, Thusan?”) and we became Wal-lee Lum and Su Lum and sounded like a Chinese laundry.
Lum is an old English word meaning “chimney.” I just heard the other day on NPR that a Christmas tradition in Olde England was to visit friends and neighbors with gifts of lumps of coal, given to be burned on the grate with the blessing, “Lang may your lum reek with the warmth of our friendship.”
The Lums moved to Alaska, where we were occasionally confused with the only Lum in the phone book, a Chinese architect. We, of course, were unlisted because we had an illegal phone that would only ring in, and when we went into the wilderness a year later we had no phone at all, so that was the end of that until we moved to Aspen in 1964.
In Aspen, the city treasurer was a Chinese man named Sam Lum, who was married to a gorgeous black woman named Greta and had a daughter named Suzie. Locally, Greta and I were known as Glum and Slum.
When Greta and Sam opened a Chinese restaurant, the House of Lum, under what is now Banana Republic (and soon will be be Ralph Lauren Polo), the confusion reached an all-time high, the phone ringing off the hook with girls calling Suzie and girls calling her popular brother Kenny and everyone calling for reservations.
Greta remarried and became Greta Forbes; I got divorced and stayed Su Lum. I didn’t want to go back to Fowler and couldn’t justify reverting to Gilligan. Everyone knew me as Su Lum at The Aspen Times, my daughters were Lums, and it didn’t even occur to me to just pick a last name I liked as Helen Palmer at the library did, or to invent a new one which was not uncommon then: Arabella Sundance, Jasmine Tygre, Valentine Day, Diamond Ecstasy.
Back in those days, The Aspen Times did a brisk business in legal notices advertising name changes – for a while it was the Aspen way of getting married and divorced, so it would have been easy. If I had named myself Rose, I might be sweeter today.
Next thing I knew my daughters were married and had changed their names, my ex-husband died in a swamp buggy accident in Alaska and I was the only Lum left in the immediate family, the one the least attached to the name. Life is full of little ironies.
I still don’t know what I would have called myself if I had seized the opportunity, and I still like the efficiency and economy of Su Lum – no wasted letters – though I do get calls from international operators who, in heavy accents, ask me if I can speak Chinese, and hang up abruptly when I say, “No.”
Su Lum is a longtime local who definitely wants us to stop calling Aspen Mountain Ajax. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times.
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