It all started with a mixup at the mail room. After getting that obligatory email, I picked up the envelope and walked away. Ripping the edge open, I pulled out its contents. A gray knit women’s infinity scarf and a holiday card signed “Daddy.”
This, I think, is a good point to mention that I don’t wear women’s clothing or refer to my father as “Daddy.” With this in mind, perhaps it’s understandable that my reaction was confusion. “What is wrong with him?” I thought, wondering what precisely had possessed my father. I worried for his sanity and imagined him in a daze, wandering the streets of the American South, totally unhinged.
I worried, because my dad is essentially a walking conference call. I’ve never seen him untuck his shirt. He was born an Armani suit that just sprouted a head, his head. To paint my family portrait, all you’d have to do is line up a bunch of tennis rackets and lean them casually against a net. We’re far too uptight for names like “daddy”.
Then I read the package label. The last name was correct: P-E-D-E-R-S-E-N (pronounced with a hard “d”). Peeling back the white mail room sticker, I saw that my first name and box number had been incorrectly printed in a script that I couldn’t recognize. I was truly confused, but then it occurred to me that perhaps, just maybe, the name on the label was correct and that the mail room sticker was a mistake. In that moment, I felt as though I had discovered proof of alien life. The reason for my confusion was my firm belief in two almost contradictory things: first, that my surname is totally normal (i.e. not rare or peculiar) and second, that no one on the earth outside of my small family had it. I was wrong on both counts.
The label read, “Thedita Pedersen” and so I looked her up on Facebook. I knew she was real when the Vassar Gmail auto-filled in the rest of her name. Once again, I felt like I was making first contact with a different species. I greeted her (much more politely than “GREETINGS EARTHLING”) and apologized profusely for opening her mail. She was cool about it and was, in fact, just as surprised as I had been. I sent the package back to the mail room and figured that would be the end of it. I ran into her at Target less than 24 hours later.
“Thedita?” I said, stepping out in front of her to grab her attention.
“Yes?” She said, glancing around for the nearest exit or possibly blunt object.
“I’m James Pedersen, I opened your-”
“Oh hi!” She said pleasantly enough, still not quite certain of my murderer or non-murderer status. We chatted for a while and she pronounced her surname, incorrectly (to be fair, she maintains that I say it wrong). We chatted for a bit and she went on her way, lugging her two stuffed Target bags towards the exit. Once again, I felt alone in the universe.
Since my doppelganger moment, I have learned that there are just over 20,000 people in this country with our surname and spelling. To give a better sense of what that number means, there were more people at Demi Lovato’s last concert than share our last name. It seemed like a tragedy to me that all these Pedersens have hurtling through the universe, and we have just missed each other.
I decided on a whim, to further the awkardness and interview her for this piece. With the interaction at Target, the incident in the mailroom, and now the interview, we were as uncomfortable as Cappy’s emails.
She confessed that, “every time someone says my name, they say it ‘Peddersin.’ I’m always like no, it’s ‘Peedersin.’” When she met me, she noted, with something just south of bitterness: “This is the guy that always gets his name said right.”
The bitterness that name pronunciations can bring about was soon replaced with genuine spookiness. Both Thedita and I grew up abroad, are the third of four children, and don’t wear that scarf she received in the mail. Her father is a JAG lawyer, a lawyer that works within and for the US military. His constant deployment and redeployment every few years meant that she spent her life going from school to school in places like Belgium, Germany, Alaska and South Korea. Now, she says, in the least Sarah Palin way possible, that she can see the Atlantic Ocean from her house in Rhode Island.
“I’ve already accepted I’m a weird person,” Thedita explained. I couldn’t dispute this, but I could definitely identify. After all, I’m the guy who approaches strangers in Target, and opens other people’s mail. Maybe weirdness is intrinsic to the Pedersen name.