From the editor
What’s in a name?
Monday, October 25, 2004
When I looked into the face of my first healthy, beautiful baby boy, I could not find the words. Nor could I find a name.
The boy arrived five weeks early and we had not yet begun to fight about what to call him. Naming a child can open up family wounds that you never knew existed. Reasonable, logical, intelligent people can become irascible.
Not in our families, I was sure. Besides, what’s in a name? When it comes down to it, it’s not a matter of life or death.
To me and my husband, our baby had been “Buster” for seven and a half months. It was our cute or, maybe, obnoxious, joke because that was what the baby was doing to me.
But I grew to love the name. OK, it lacked a certain gravitas. Nor did it fit our criteria: A name should connect a child to his or her family.
And above all, when it shows up in the history books, it must read well.
Encyclopedia Britannica, entry 2050: “President Buster Smith, known to all as a true Renaissance man, was elected for a third term after the Constitution was overturned. Smith, who in his earlier career cured the common cold, flew the first mission to Pluto, composed four concertos and has three oils hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said the biggest obstacle he has overcome in his life was his first name. ‘I don’t know what my parents were thinking,’ said Smith upon accepting his Nobel Peace Prize.”
A child’s name also needs to wear well, whether he is walking onto a construction site or taking his seat on the Supreme Court.
My son’s first name also had another burden—it had to offset his last name, Smith, my husband’s last name and the one we had agreed to give our son. (Which was never a given, mind you, but that’s another story.) Still, if Smith was the end, what was the beginning?
Both my husband and I felt it would be lovely to honor my father, Robert G. Schultz, who had given birth to three girls, none of them Roberta. But how could we seriously saddle a child with Bob Smith and ever expect him to be able to check into a motel without people snickering?
Other boys’ names on my side of the family are all solid and bland—Bill? Dan? None of them is spicy enough to stand up to Smith. So, we went out on the limbs of our family trees. Bryant was my mother-in-law’s grandmother’s name. And it sounded great. So, it was decreed: We shall call him Bryant Robert Smith. And he shall be known as B-Bob.
My father-in-law was happy but pulled me aside to put in a bid: Next name, the name should come from his side of the family—specifically, from him.
Still, most everyone was pleased.
And my father introduced this boy with gusto. “This is my grandson, Bryant ROBERT Smith.”
It was a great gift that I am glad to have given him. My dad died three months later. Much too early for all of us, but, still, enough time for a few introductions.
So, I still call my son B-Bob, it reminds me of my dad. Almost everyone else calls my son, Brian—at least at first.
“His name is Brian?”
“Actually, it is Bryant.”
“That’s what I said, Brian.”
“No, that’s Bryant, with a ‘y.’ ”
“That’s a funny way to spell Bryan.”
“BryANT, with a ‘T.’ ”
“Pardon?” That’s when I take a deep breath and succumb. “No, Bryant as in Bryant Gumbel.”
“Oh, I get it.” A pause usually follows. “You named your child after Bryant Gumbel?”
When the second prodigal son came along, the name game was agonizingly long. Bryant’s early birth left no time for debate; my dear second boy was two weeks late. Way too much time for discussion.
My mother-in-law, sure it would be a girl, wanted to honor her Aunt Susie. I looked at her, “That’s my name.” I went on explaining what she already knew. While I had not taken her son’s name because of my beliefs, I also strongly believed Susy Smith was not a name to have by choice. A steel magnolia, she did not care. Susie had been special. What greater honor was there than giving a child her name? Logical.
I started praying for a boy.
Digging through genealogy records, I found a wonderful name in my mother’s family tree. Proudly, I told my grandmother. This sweet woman, always immaculately dressed and beautifully coiffured, turned to me and said, “Why would you name anyone after him? He was a louse.” Reasonable.
My father-in-law took me aside and said, “You know what I want you to name that child?” Already, a week overdue, I was in a take-no-prisoners mode.
He looked at me and smiled, “I want you to name that child anything you want.” What a great man. I was gripped by gratitude. So reasonable, so logical.
Why couldn’t we just name the child after him? My husband, who has the same name, said no. He didn’t want a junior. We both loved the name Zachary and adding my husband’s middle name to it meant the two would have the same initials. My husband felt this was akin to naming our boy after his dad. Great, I thought, we had not time to float it to a family focus group but, hey, we’re reasonable people, right?
I was holding this lovely bundle in my arms as my husband dialed my in-laws to give them the great news. “Pop, I can’t wait for you to meet,” I paused for effect. “Zachary Nockton Smith.”
“WHAT!” the voice on the other end of the phone was loud. “You named him WHAT?”