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What inspired me to spend decades researching and writing a book about the regicide John Dixwell? The answer is short: my name.

Sarah Dixwell Brown, a.k.a. “Dixie,” at two

Names are powerful. That moment in the delivery room or wherever your parents happen to be when they choose your name will affect you profoundly. Why did my parents settle on Sarah Dixwell Brown and then nickname me Dixie? I never thought to ask, and now, of course, I cannot because they are dead. Did they worry a little that naming me Sarah after my mother (observant Jews would never do this, which I think is wise) might give me a little identity confusion? I do not know. Still, to me it is a beautiful, musical name, Sarah Dixwell Brown.

But it has been a difficult name for two reasons. For one thing, I could never use the name Sarah while I was growing up, because it was already taken. Even after my mother died in 1998, I couldn’t bring myself to claim Sarah as my own, because the very word made me miss her so. The second difficulty is my nickname. When you’re born in New England and you’re called Dixie, people object. “You can’t be Dixie,” they say. “You’re not from the South.” And if they themselves are Southerners, they sometimes seem a bit miffed, as if I were deliberately posing.

Perhaps this is why, from early childhood, I have had an uneasy relationship with my name. At recess, in elementary school, kids called me “Dixie Cup” and pretended to spoon ice cream off me. On the first day of class, throughout my education, I’d have a delayed reaction when the teacher called out “Sarah Brown,” not at first realizing she was referring to me. “Sarah Brown?” the teacher would repeat and I’d wake up. “Oh! Here! My nickname is Dixie.”

“How do you get Dixie from Sarah?” the teacher often asked.

“My middle name is Dixwell.”

“Dixwell? I’ve never heard that name before.”

Nor had anyone. In high school, boys had a fine time with “Dicks well.” In college, unasked, a few people started calling me S. Dixwell, or just Dixwell, but for the most part I went on being Dixie and had no notion that my name had come to this country with my seven greats grandfather when he was fleeing for his life.

 

Posted on: Jan. 7, 2022

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