Carol Stephen Grade 7
Born Without an Umlaut
by Carol A. Stephen

Born to an unpronounceable surname,
I wandered through school always
far down the list at roll call, knew
my turn had come when teacher stopped
after my first name. That same cough, a glance up,
then the struggle: Swuh, Swuh, SSSS –
Embarrassed, I’d raise my hand, call out “Here!”

Always the middle vowels tying tongues. “AE.”
I could see by their wrinkled frowns
they were thinking: Is it AY? Or the long Ah?
Swaebe. Could be Swayb, could be Swab, or even Swabby:
that odd name missing its precious umlaut.

Dad’s long gone. I search for him online, looking
for clues to never-mentioned relatives and ancestors.
Discover Dad, born under another unpronounceable name.
Not Swaebe at all, he was a Pfahl! (Fall or Pfffal?)
I cough, I struggle. I wonder if he ever knew.

How would life have unfolded, if our histories
had opened under a different name?

PHOTOGRAPH: The author at age 11.

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: In 2010, many years after my father died, I became interested in the history of our family, and the unusual surname of Swaebe. I soon discovered he was not listed under that name. I found a different name, Pfahl. I still have not discovered who my paternal grandfather was; my grandmother was born Swaebe. I have traced the Swaebe line back to the 1700s through England and Belgium to The Netherlands and yet another surname, Zwaab. The Pfahls were first cousins to my grandmother and came from Germany.

Carol A. Stephen

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Carol A. Stephen is a Canadian poet. Her poetry has appeared in Bywords Quarterly Journal and two Tree Press/phaphours press collaborative chapbooks. You can also find Carol’s poems on-line at The Light Ekphrastic and in videos. Twice shortlisted, in 2012 Carol won 3rd place in Canadian Authors Association National Capital Writing Contest. She’s the author of three chapbooks, Above the Hum of Yellow Jackets, Architectural Variations and Ink Dogs in my Shoes (2014), as well as a new collaborative chapbook with JC Sulzenko, titled Breathing Mutable Air (2015). Visit her blog at