The Problem With My Name

A multifaceted identity


in Features • Illustrated by Camille Velasquez


In the fall of 1971, my father took me to look at colleges. We had recently moved back to the US from Stuttgart, Germany, where we had lived for the past four years. During the many years we were overseas, my family had traveled extensively throughout Europe, but only on a couple of occasions did my father and I go anywhere alone. One time was in the early 1960s when we were living in Vicenza, Italy. I was 12, and my family had signed me up for summer camp in Leysin, Switzerland. The six-hour drive meant we had to spend the night in a hotel before the next morning’s registration. I remember being more excited about dinner in the elegant Stube and eating creamy, kirsch-laden cheese fondue than going to camp. Though I was very much the outdoors girl, I preferred my solitary reverie to forced activities with packs of girls and boys my age, living together in a rambling old building and former TB sanatorium. But all that was quickly forgotten as we hiked through high mountain meadows, swam in crystal clear lakes, surrounded by snow-capped Alps, immersing me in nature’s beauty.

But I wasn’t that little girl anymore; I was a senior getting ready to go to college. This time there was no hotel and no fondue. The drive from our house in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, to Ithaca, NY, was only four hours. The reason I applied to Cornell was long-lost to me, except that perhaps my father had suggested it, having visited the campus in 1949 with thoughts of going there himself. I have photos of him, in an oversized camel hair coat, standing on the bridge over the gorge and in front of Ezra Cornell’s statue. Why a Turkish medical student wanted to study in wintry upstate New York is a part of his life, like so many others, long-lost to me too.

My interview at Cornell did not go well. The admissions officer kept going on about the university’s basketball team and did not ask me one question. With an absolute clarity that seemed to be lacking in all other aspects of my life at the time, I knew this was wrong. I was interested in anthropology, not sports. I was wasting his time, and he was wasting mine, but sitting on the other side of his big desk (his feet propped up mentally in my mind), I listened and nodded politely. I left, swallowing my pride, disappointed by my deep-seated inability to speak up. Did I learn a lesson from this experience? Based on everything I know about myself, I did not. I continued to swallow, instead of speak, for a very long time.

The next college visit a month later, in Bryn Mawr, was only a few miles away. Applying to the esteemed women’s college was my mother’s idea. She did not go to college but if she had, she explained, she would have chosen the very best. A women’s college was an ideal place to learn and study without the distraction of the other sex, an environment she thought would be ideal for me. She was so wrong about so much but this time, looking back, honestly, she was right.

Thanks to my mother’s explicit instructions and coaching, my father understood the gravity and importance of my interview: it was Bryn Mawr or less desirable options. My father drove. As we entered the statuesque stone building, the oriental rugs, polished woodwork, and fine furnishings set the tone for great expectations. This was hallowed ground demanding great respect; his university medical schooling and army officer instincts kicked in. He must have been in uniform that day because I remember him holding his hat in his hands, almost bowing, as we entered the stately admissions office.

“I’m Dr. Turan. And this is Louise, my wife.”

I froze. Luckily, I don’t think his pronouncement was heard by Elizabeth Vermey, the admissions officer, only the secretary sitting in the outer office. My father quickly recovered and explained, laughing, no, I was indeed his daughter and that my mother’s name was Louise. I pulled myself together and sat down in Ms. Vermey’s office for my interview. I apologized for the confusion, explaining my father wasn’t accustomed to introducing me formally as Louise. You see, my name is Louise Hayat Turan, but my family has always called me Heidi.

I have been Heidi since I was about a year and a half. At that time, we were stationed in Ft. Devon, Boston, and my grandmother, Ruth Barrett Haley, had come to live with us in our very small army quarters. She must have been surprised to learn that her daughter was now calling herself Louise, not Sally, as she had been known her whole life. My mother’s maiden name was Sarah Louise Haley: Sarah after her maternal grandmother, Sarah Ann Hemming from England; and Louise, after Louise Duplesis Haley, her paternal grandmother from Maine. But my mother had never liked being called Sally, so as soon as she got married and moved out of the house, she began calling herself Louise. Did changing her name upset my grandmother? I’m pretty sure it did because, perhaps in retaliation or revenge, she was the one who changed mine. But first, more confusion about my name.

Because my mother was Louise No Longer Sally, and my first name was Louise, my parents called me by my middle name, Hayat, after my Turkish grandmother, Hayati. Apparently, my grandmother, Ruth, had problems pronouncing Hayat. I can hear her placing the accent on the first syllable instead of the second, like most everyone does; think hotel chain. (In letters, she refers to my father as Efrem, not Ekrem.) So given that I loved to sing, pick flowers, and had blond-white hair, her inspiration for my new name was none other than Shirley Temple in her starring role as Heidi, something closer to (and better than) Hayat. No one in my family disputes this story, and I have been Heidi ever since. Most of the time.

My Turkish family uses my Turkish name, Hayat, but Heidi and Louise are what I go by for the most part. My father loved to call me Heidibelle; my Italian friends called me “Haidee” for the entire four years we lived in Vicenza and to this day. To my parents’ friends, I was always known as Heidi. In high school, I was Louise and Weegun, and at Chatham College (I got on the waiting list at Bryn Mawr but decided not to go) I was Lou, or Electric Lou. Professionally, in my former career as a nonprofit executive, and as a writer, always Louise, meaning there are still multiple worlds who call me something else, not to mention what I am called by my sons and husband. They would never call me Heidi, except when teasing me, and then I threaten to leave them.

Add to the name confusion, one of place. I was born in Turkey, moved to Virginia, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, grew up in Italy, moved back to the US, then Germany for four years, back to the US for two, then Italy again, and finally, landing in Pennsylvania and eventually in Maine where I live now. This is the challenge of the Army Brat, and there are many of us, all with the same identity and relocation scars. None of us can say, in a sentence or less, where we are from and who we are. We belong to the same circus act, picking up our tents and moving from town to town, changing the language we speak, the clothes we wear, what we eat and where we live, from beautiful villas or brick army quarters. For the most part, it is not a life we choose but one chosen for us by well-meaning parents who struggled equally as hard with jobs, caring for us, learning the ropes of new economies, packing furniture, and coping with ever-changing rules, laws, and orders.

In this respect, I am no different from my fellow Army Brats, many of whom keep in touch and are close friends. We go to reunions and talk about the past as a way to find our footing in the present. We say, “that was me then and who I am now.” We tell each other so many different but the same stories about the meaning of, and search for, someplace to call home, how living in multiple countries, moving every four years, makes us swimmers in an ocean with no land in sight.

My first home was Ankara, Turkey. I was born in a house that had belonged to my grandmother Hayati. The house was in need of repairs when my parents moved in, but the neighborhood was beautiful. It was called Bahçelievler, meaning Houses with Gardens. Photos show a small house with a red tile roof and multiple little balconies surrounded by an equally small garden planted with fruit and nut trees, all of which were flowering when I arrived on May 21, 1954.

May is a lovely time to be born, and I like to imagine my little nostrils were infused with the sweet scent of blossoming almond trees, my ears attuned to the music of the streets and the sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, my eyes opened to a new world. In photos, my mother looks genuinely happy, a look that seems to have gone missing since then. My father, holding me, appears equally happy, but his great smile always did a great job of hiding everything. For both of them, a shadow of sadness always lingered somewhere behind their eyes, both children of parental losses that affected the rest of their lives and mine.

I never met my Turkish grandmother, Hayati. She was born in 1890 (est.) and died in 1945 of an unknown illness. My father, about to enter medical school at Istanbul University, was devastated by her death, believing he was partly to blame. His recent affair with a married woman, who lived in his parents’ apartment building, had broken his mother’s heart. He had always been close to her, a favored son, and she was a loving mother. In photos, I see a beautiful woman, and I long to learn more about her. A distant cousin who lives in Isparta, where I believe my grandmother was born, reached out to me through social media and is looking forward to my visit — one I’m afraid will have to wait until travel restrictions and health concerns are lifted.

In the meantime, I am limited by what my father shared with me about his family and life in Turkey, (scant) and what I have read in the letters he and my mother exchanged during the year and a half they were forced to separate right after their marriage, from 1952 until 1953. My mother was equally mysterious about her life prior to meeting my father. After they died, I was astonished to discover the stories and secrets revealed in letters and photos I had never seen before. Why had they hidden them? It struck me they wanted to run away from their past, leaving me to chase it down, like a detective with a book of clues, with a mystery to solve, not only who they were, but who I am. Hayat? Haidee? Louise? Weegun? Heidi?

My parents were definitely a unit, and the four of us, after my sister came along, made it a larger one. A single body with multiple limbs, hearts, heads, and minds, at times, moving together in a synchronized swim, or with the ferocity of a horse race, sometimes each in our own rowboat, pulling as hard as we can to survive. In that regard, the surviving part, I’m speaking mostly about myself. From all the signs I’ve ever picked up from my mother, which were countless, I believe she knew I was different, the odd man out, part of our unit that broke off and went its own way. She communicated this to me in her special language of hieroglyphics — the raised eyebrow, the cold stare, the turned shoulder — so I’ll never know for sure.

Grandmother Ruth was spot on about me. Of all my names, I really do see myself more as Heidi. I do love to sing, and pick flowers, hiking through the Alps where I am truly at home and happy. Only my hair is now pure white instead of blond. My walks take me through balsam-scented forests by the ocean. And I sing only in private when no one is listening, other than the seagulls. •


Louise Turan’s fiction and creative nonfiction has appeared in Superstition Review, Forge, Diverse Voices Quarterly, the dap project, and Existere, among others. Born in Ankara, Turkey, she is a former singer/song writer, prep cook, and nonprofit executive. She is currently working on a memoir about her family and growing up overseas. Louise lives and writes in Philadelphia and Owls Head, Maine. Read more of her published works at, or on Instagram: @louiseturan.