(Those are my fine looking great-grandparents, Buford Rosenfield Breeding and Birtie Neal Thomas Breeding, left.)
Our names are an integral part of who we are. They are the sound to which we respond, the greeting from a friend or lover, the stern reprimand from a parent or teacher. Hopefully, if we are lucky, our names “suit” us, fit us naturally, like a well-worn pair of jeans. But how does this “fit” come to be? Do we grow into names or do they grow on us? What happens if names don’t fit? Are these people forever doomed to feel like they’ve left the party in someone else’s coat? A name is important, critical to our identity.
I’ve always been comfortable with my own name, Melissa. It’s not burdensome or too flashy, and it’s fairly sensible and average on the popularity scale. My mother chose it when she was a girl because it was my great-great-grandmother’s name. By the time I was born, however, Melissa was a trendy name, so there were always several Melissa’s in my class at school. I looked up my name’s origin once and found that Melissa is Greek for “honeybee” and Carol means “full-grown.” I never knew quite what to make of what my name implied for me—was I destined to metaphorically make honey or sting? In any case, I’ve always been appreciative that my parents gave me a moniker that was at least manageable.
The act of naming someone (or something, say, a pet or a new business) is a weighty task. Because a name bestowed on someone or something brings about certain expectations, the name colors how that person or thing will be perceived. Expectant parents, of course, feel the significance of this undertaking. I’ve had two children, so I’ve twice been through the fun and arduous process of having to name a human being. Although it’s a little less consequential to name a pet (you typically don’t have to worry if Mr. Jingles will want to be an attorney someday), the effort is still important—the name must reflect the personality, the essence, the spirit and soul of the pooch, feline, horse, or spider. The name is a gift, a package of anticipation, hope and endearment.
My husband and I failed miserably in naming the best dog we ever had, a Dalmatian. In a lapse of creativity I still cannot comprehend, we called the dog a painfully obvious “Dottie.” Our cats were a little more cleverly named for their coats, Miss Penny for a copper spot on her head, and Stella for a beautiful spray of golden “stars” on her black fur. In our family, we have generally preferred giving pets “people names” for we recognize them as kindred souls, and I am not fond (to put it tactfully) of naming dogs fluffy names like, well, Fluffy or Baby or Sparkle or Mr. Jingles. I almost passed out when my mother named a cat Puff. I could never establish any respect for that animal, and it wasn’t even his fault.
There is undeniably an emotional aspect of nomenclature, and people get excited and serious about naming something. Authors symbolically load their characters with revealing names—who can forget The Scarlet Letter’s Pearl, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth or Romeo’s benevolent friend Benvolio? NASA spent months polling space enthusiasts to name their new Mars rover (“Curiosity” won). Schools elicit both fanatical pride and fervent protest when naming mascots. My in-laws named their gleaming, silver Airstream camper “Lucy”—after a Lucille Ball camping episode they both fondly remembered. We name ships, natural disasters, musical instruments, our broken-down cars. I still haven’t started a blog because I cannot, even after days of deliberation, come up with a suitable name for it. This business of naming is fundamental stuff.
Another emotionally-charged aspect of names is when we wish to establish a namesake. Passing on a name is the act of weaving a thread from the past into the fabric of the future. We create bonds, familial ties, and legacy through the bestowing of names, regardless if the namesake’s gift comes right from dad, grandma, a beloved friend, or from a distant branch on the family tree. Our hearts hope for the continuity of spirit.
Friends of ours, a wonderful couple who have loads of great ideas, came up with the custom of naming their daughters’ dolls after departed great-aunts, great-grandmothers, etc. What a clever way to keep the legacy of these ladies alive! Although the young girls will never meet these female relatives, their names will be familiar, cherished, loved for at least another generation. Another friend is opening a café and naming it “Annie Ruby’s” after her beloved grandmother. I love this concept—cultivating tradition and familiarity through the naming of things.
My brother, John, said to me on the phone last week, “I’ve always loved Papa’s name, Oscar. In case I never have a son, do you think I could name my next pet Oscar? Would that be a tribute or totally disrespectful?” My brother confessed that he thinks naming an animal after a deceased person would, in some form of reincarnation, give the animal some of the person’s spirit, or at least qualities characteristic of the honored person. Considering his love for Papa, having “Oscar” around him as a companion, he said, would be much more comforting than having “Spot” or “Kitty.” We pondered this for a few minutes. We imagined looking deeply into a pet’s eyes and feeling something flutter in our chests, some spark of recognition, some “connection” to the soul beyond—or perhaps inside--this furry namesake. We decided, definitely, naming pets after loved ones would be an acceptable thing to do. John immediately decided to request of his closest friends and family that, if he died before them, they name their next pet after him. His only concern was that he hoped future pet Johns would reflect cute, endearing qualities reminiscent of him (“Boy, John sleeps a lot!”) and not bad habits (“Darn it! John messed up the carpet again!”).
I did manage to give my children a bit of “family” in their names—both from my side of the tree. My husband seemed okay with this. After all, they get to have his family’s surname. Caroline is from my middle name, Carol, which is also my mom’s middle name. Thomas has my maiden name, Wells, as his middle name. After my conversation with my brother, I’m a little sad that I have no intention of having another child, because I’ve been twirling my grandmother Nellie’s name around in my mind, thinking it would be a good name for a daughter. Those of you who know my Mema Nellie would probably agree that her namesake would turn out to be quite a firecracker. Oh, well. Perhaps there will be other opportunities in our family—a granddaughter, a beloved doll, our first racehorse-- for another “Nellie” to be officially christened.
. . . and a recipe, in Pillowbook tradition:
Buford Rosenfield Salad
(named for my great-grandfather Buford Rosenfield Breeding, who died around 1940.
10 oz. cavatappi pasta (spiraled tubes)
assorted greens/lettuces (I used an herb mix and torn romaine)
1 tbsp. lemon juice
crumbled blue cheese or feta (I used feta)
½ cup chopped walnuts
2 tomatoes, diced or quartered
sliced red onion
fresh basil leaves
½ cup white corn (I used frozen corn, thawed in running water)
salt & pepper
4 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp lemon juice
salt and pepper
Boil pasta according to package directions, tender but still firm to the bite. Drain, and rinse in cold water. Dice pears and toss with lemon juice to prevent discoloration.
Build salads (I used individual bowls): lettuces, pasta, pears, feta/blue cheese, walnuts, tomatoes, onion slices, and grated carrot. Top with chopped basil and corn.
For the dressing, mix the olive oil and lemon juice in a measuring cup, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour dressing over the salads, toss, and serve.