Please, Permit Me to Introduce Myself, My Name is Elaine Sernovitz, You May Know Me by Another Name

August 3rd, 2017 by elaine

Please, Permit Me to Introduce Myself, My Name is Elaine Sernovitz, You May Know Me by Another Name.

My identity has been confused, but I didn’t know it until I was fourteen years old and eligible to get a work permit in the State of Wisconsn where I was born.  I was most anxious to get this piece of paper because I wanted to be able to work, to earn money, like my slightly older sister did and all her friends and some of mine as well.  So I went to the city hall and found that on the very day I was born, December 30, 1929, a person by the name of Harriet Ethel was born of my mother and my father.

The clerk was not the least bit upset but I was and went home with the appropriate papers, indignant.  I was soon registered correctly and  never had a problem again until 1955 when I was married in New Orleans to George Zimbel.  When, after a decent amount of time we didn’t get the copies of our documents to prove this event, I sent them a note  to enquire and signed the note:  Mr. and Mrs. George S. Zimbel.  (That is the most likely thing to do, looking back to how things were), and we got a notice back eventually saying:  Re: the marriage of George S.Zimbel to NO Name Given.

I didn’t feel real good about that, I was already a feminist, I was one from the day I was born being very adept at noticing inequalities in the boy/girl thing of my very large family and my school and the world at large.  But I knew who I was — Elaine Anne (with an e, as  Anne would say in ‘Anne of Green Gables” (I  added it myself, of course.)

We actually emigrated to Prince Edward Island where Anne was so popular in 1971, George and I and our four young children, one dog and I think two cats.  We had bought a 100 acre farm on the shores of the Northumberland Strait, and we were actually farming. The name Elaine A. Zimbel was my signature, and with it I wrote, I published, I broadcast on the CBC and I had a unique psychotherapy practice.  Someone said to George one day, never directly to me, “When your wife speaks, we listen!” There was no problem there with my name.

But ten years later we were disenchanted with rural life, we needed more stimulation, our children had left for greater spaces and we needed to do the same.  We moved to the only possible place for us, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  My French would come back and George would learn and we would live on the French side of town and find work and survive. George was fifty-one and I was almost the same.

And we did and we have,  I as Elaine Sernovitz, beause every woman in Quebec is identified with her name at birth (or nom de jeune fille); Health Card, Drivers License, you name it.  At first I found it amusing, being in a doctor’s office waiting for my turn and hearing,
“Madame Sernovitz?” or on the English side, “Mrs Sernovitz?”  The first time I gasped, OMG is my mother here?  Of course not, but that’s who she was all my life, not me. For a long long time I thought of it as a misnomer. It wasn’t really me.  And now all that has changed.

It is who I am.  It is who I want to be. It it is who I truly deserve to be.

It’s a long story and I won’t start at the beginning, nor can I take you to the end.  I will just say that in late January of this very year, 2017, I needed to have surgery to remove a masse that was “suspected” of being cancer.  I did not suspect it because I had not been feeling ill at all, with symptoms so mild I apologized to the doctor for taking her time to see me. Needless to say, the tests were done, the results were suspect, and the operation proceeded at an exellent teaching and research hospital where I was under the care of a highly qualified surgeon and his incredible team of young people.

When introduced to the anesthesiologist I joked with him, asking how did he wake people up, gesturing with a hand to indicate did he slap them (movies, forgive me!).  He laughed and said no, no he would call my name, and I said, “Well don’t call me Madame Sernovitz, because I might not answer”, and we agreed he could call me Elaine.  (I never did hear him call my name but when others teased me back, they said, But you did wake up.

True. I was back in my room and noticed the time on a big clock facing my bed,  and told my husband, who had been there since early morning to go home and have a rest,  and he did.

For some reasom the next part is extremely clear.. I was hooked up to an IV pole and I was very comfortable , not the least bit groggy. I believe it was two hours later. The head doctor came into my room and stood at the foot of the bed.  He said, “It is cancer,  There is no cure for ovarian cancer.  You may experience remission, but it will come back.”

He then offered chemotherarapy, describing it in such horrific terms it sounded like 1968, nausea, fatigue, loss of hair,  in repeated three week rounds …..for  18 weeks.  I said no thanks to that because I had not felt the least bit ill before the surgery and thought it would be insane to submit to that kind of treatment.  Later when the final report of the examination of the tissue was done and all that was cancerous was removed and a long strip of my belly had also been removed and found to be 100 % cancer free, I was pleased with my decision.

I asked the doctor if he had told anyone else (like family???) and he said, “No, only you.”

I have thought about this conversation many times.  I have thought in wonder how he could do that? Just shoot it at me like that.  And I have studied my reaction.  I can see my body from behind myself where I am sitting up in bed, and I know there is not a tear in my eye, there is not a gasp of my breath, there is a woman sitting there just like she has sat in many a professional lecture throughout her life, not the least bit detached, very much present, student of comparative literature and philosophy with a profound interest and training in body/mind psychotherapy.

Was it bad TV or a bad play  or a not very good book I was reviewing for  the Globe and Mail?  Was it his particular protocol?  STOP!

Later that afternoon some family came in  when a wonderful female resident joined us who, with great clarity and kindness explained the situation to us.  I am quite sure I didn’t mention that her boss had got there first.

I began to analyze this episode in my life and particularly my reaction to it, months after it occurred because I was rehospitalized to learn the cancer “had come back”  (as promised!!).  and this is when I saw myself, my dearest little Elaine Sernovitz, the person I was from birth and remained to that very day and this one.  And I am glad to be her.  I am proud of her.

And I don’t mind in the least when people say my last name and ask. “Where are you from?” meaning what country on the planet because I love to ask them the same thing.  They are so many lovely colours, so many cultures are behind them, I love it.  We are all the same.  People from away who have found a home in a civilised country with health care for all and no insuranee company calling the shots.  And good and LOVING care…with all manner of support from the community.

As for me, I am doing just fine.  I am surrounded by love so profound if I could not walk on water I could certainly float on it to whatever place I will be next…


This morning at 4:30 am Elaine Anne Sernovitz Zimbel slipped away as she had wished to, surrounded by love. This, her final post, was written on July 23.   We know that Elaine was always so grateful to you, readers for your letters, your kindness and your sage observations about  her words. On Monday, when we told Elaine how much we would miss her, she said, “I won’t be far”.

Thank you for reading.

We have opened the comments section of the blog.

With love,  George, Matt, Andrew, Ike, Jodi.

Montreal, Quebec, Canada


December 30, 1929 – August 3, 2017

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