Thursday, April 9, 2015

Claiming Your Name

I already know the answer to this question, but I will ask it anyway.

Do you, dear widowed friends or surviving person of anyone you loved that died, have certain specific things that still make you feel guilty? Things that you wish you had done differently? Things that maybe you regret, in the wake of the loss of the person you love? Yes. Of course you do. We all do. I do. I have many. It would take me all day to list them, and to analyze them. Some of these things I have processed and talked about and come to a place of peace within myself about them. And some of these things have stuck with me, and probably won't ever really go away. There is one particular thing that has nagged at me since the day my husband died - it just scratches and scratches and claws at me, begging to be dealt with. And today, I found a way to begin to deal with it in a way that has started to give me some calm.

His name.
My husband's name.
Don Shepherd.

It meant the world to him, that last name. Shepherd. He had to fight for that name. It was not the name on his birth certificate, although it should have been. My husband had a dysfunctional childhood straight out of an episode of General Hospital or some other soap, except it was real. He was the product of an affair. His mom, a master at manipulation and control and the Head Nurse at a local hospital, changed the information on Don's birth certificate so that the dates and names would not match up with the timeline of her one-night stand. The birth date on my husband's birth certificate read February 28 (he was actually born on November 6th), and the last name read McInturf, which was the last name of the man that Don's mother was dating and living with at that time. She wanted him to believe that he was Don's father, and Don's actual father, Neal Shepherd, had a family of his own. Don's mother decided not to inform Neal that he had a son -and neither Don nor Neal knew about one another until much later in life, when Don was about 18 years old. As for this McInturf guy, he was an abusive asshole who often made Don's mother and two older sisters his favorite victims.

When Don finally met his real father, and learned that McInturf was NOT in fact related to him, his reaction was: 'Thank God I don't share DNA with that piece of shit!" And with this new knowledge, Don went straight to the courts, to request a name change. "My dad's name is Shepherd," he told them. "I am a Shepherd." And on that day in 1986, his name change was granted, and Don McInturf became Don Shepherd.

My name is Kelley Lynn Niemi. Lynn is my middle name, and onstage and in my acting and performance career, I have always gone by Kelley Lynn, because it just sounds nicer , and people normally have trouble correctly pronouncing my Finnish last name of Niemi. When I married Don, I never had my name changed to his last name. I never changed it to Shepherd. The worst part is that I don't even know why. There really is no real reason, other than laziness and forgetfulness. I just never got around to it, and Don was never the type of guy to insist on me doing or not doing anything. I don't know if he was hurt by the fact that I never changed my name, but after he died, it really started to bother me. I really started to want to be a Shepherd. Maybe it's because we have no kids, so the name won't live on past him. Maybe it's because the rest of his family is so dysfunctional and lame, that I felt like I need to be the one to carry the name forward. Maybe it's because I just wanted something - some tiny little piece of him to call my own forever. His name. What could be better than that, especially when he fought so hard to claim it, all those years ago?

So that guilt has been sitting inside me, eating away at my skin and my heart. It sort of felt a bit pointless and "too late" to change my name to Shepherd now - he's dead. Why bother? It would only confuse people, and I would have to constantly explain why I changed it NOW and not while we were married. That is not a conversation I feel like having over and over and over again.

But it's okay. Because today, out of nowhere, or maybe somewhere from Don's soul, I had this idea. And once I thought of it, it seemed like it should have been so obvious all along. The book. The book I have been writing for the past 2 years - the book about me and Don and our life together, and the life I'm creating now for myself. My book , that is a tribute to my beautiful dead husband. Currently - on the front cover draft - my name is listed as Kelley Lynn. But today, for whatever reason, I looked at my name in print, and then it came to me. Kelley Lynn Shepherd. I need to take his last name - just for the book. I will pen the book using the name I should have had all along during our marriage - Shepherd. What better way to honor him than to take his name on this book? It feels so perfect to me. My name will never be written that way again - it will only be written that way for this book that encapsulates our love story through life and death. Right now, I cant think of anything that makes me feel more proud, than to take my husband's name on my very first book cover, and wear it with pride.

I am so , so sorry that I never took your name, Boo. I am so, so sorry. But I want to take it now, and I want the entire world to know, when they read my book, our book, and they see that cover - they will know then, that I am a Shepherd. It may not be legally binding, but my name will be listed that way on the pages of that book forever, until the end of time - and that is the kind of binding that really stays with you. Always.


  1. Dear Kelley Lynn-
    What a beautiful tribute. You can certainly call yourself whatever you like without legally changing your name, just as you opt to not use your legal last name professionally.
    As far as having to explain the name to people- I did change my name when we married. Shortly after he died a few people asked me what my name is now. I had to explain that my legal last name is my husband's name, and did not automatically revert back to my maiden name because he died. Geez.
    You can't win, so do what you want, Mrs. Shepherd.

  2. What a fabulous idea and beautiful tribute.
    In recent years, I had thought that if I had to do it all again, I wouldn't change my name, but now that he's gone too soon, I'm happy I did.

  3. I second what anonymous said. Lots of women, even to this day, see taking the man's last name as losing your identity and being "owned" by a man but I don't see it that way. I do respect other people's choices and say "to each his own." Call yourself whatever you want for as long as you want. If, after the book is published, you decide that Kelley Lynn Shepherd fits you perfectly, keep using it. If not, don't. He will always be a part of you and you will always be a part of him, regardless of your name.


  4. I love this tribute you are making. It is a wonderful way to honor your love.

  5. Dear Kelley,

    I am so happy for the peace and joy you have found, the perfect tribute to your Love, your Don. I can't wait to see "Kelley Lynn Shepherd" on the cover of your book! it. is. Perfect.

    much love,


    1. The few times Don and I mentioned me taking his last name but still using my middle name, he would always joke that "Kelley Lynn Shepherd" sounded like a country-western singer name lol. It kind of does - but it also feels right.

  6. I too think it is fitting and lovely to use the name. I was so excited to change my name to my husband's when we got I've had people ask whether I would change it back, or what I would do...heck no. I so do not ever want to change it. I am proud to be a Vendrell, I am proud that I was Mike's wife.

  7. This makes my heart sing. I'm so glad the right, appropriate answer came to you.

    1. Thank you everyone. Sometimes you can fix the things that are hurting your heart. Not always, but sometimes. For me, this seemed like the perfect way to make this right. Im still really sad that I never took Don's name while he was alive, but taking it in tribute to write the book that honors his life, feels like a beautiful thing.

  8. That is beautiful Kelley Lynn Sheperd.

    Maria O.