Wednesday, June 16, 2010

If I Ever Get to Name a Horse, It's Going to Be "Whoa, Nellie!"

Names intrigue me. Listening to my maternal grandmother talk about my departed ancestors, I am fascinated by the way she proudly articulates each person’s name. Besides how impressive it is that she, at 85 years, can remember these names in full-- first, middle, and last—I am intrigued by the names themselves: Birtie Neal Thomas. Buford Rosenfield Breeding. Flora Hovious Rice. My grandma Margie is not a genealogist, but she has carefully studied the neat print on the documents and photos in the boxes under her bed. She knows that even though these people are gone, their names are important.

(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 cafĂ© 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.
I’m quite sure he would never have eaten a salad of this sort)

10 oz. cavatappi pasta (spiraled tubes)
assorted greens/lettuces (I used an herb mix and torn romaine)
2 pears
1 tbsp. lemon juice
crumbled blue cheese or feta (I used feta)
½ cup chopped walnuts
2 tomatoes, diced or quartered
sliced red onion
grated carrot
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.


  1. What a wonderful thing a blog is!! I enjoyed reading your entry for two reasons. One, I, too, spent lots of time and hours naming my three girls all of which have family names in some form or fashion. Secondly, it is so nice to hear a voice from the past. You were a wonderful writer then and an even better one now. It is so good to hear from you!

  2. I really enjoyed the post, and it made me appreciate the fact that I named my daughter after family. Her first name is Raylee, as my dad's middle name is Ray. I have always been a daddy's girl....Tommy has already decreed that if we have a boy it will be named after him: John Weldon Thomas Carter. These are all after the men of his family, John his paternal grandfather, Weldon his father, Thomas his maternal grandfather. So, let's hope that God has in his plan a boy for us to keep the rich tradition going!

  3. How I loved reading this Melissa! Lindsey and I were just speaking of deceased Grandmother's names this week end. I think family names are just the most interesting and how the older names are being used again. Thank you for sharing personal family events with us, it was great hearing about brother John and yes another Nellie would be a firecracker. I look forward to being a follower of your blog when you find a NAME for it.

  4. oh yes going to try that salad.

  5. Jackie-- Thanks so much for the comments! It's been great hearing from you, too, through Liza's blog and Facebook albums. You haven't changed a bit!
    Kristi--I hope you have a little boy, too! That is a great and noble name! He will have a lot of role models, won't he? I like Raylee, also.
    Carolyn-- Family names are so interesting! I think it's great that we still talk about these gems and the stories behind them. Our family actually has a lot of names I could have really poked fun at, but those poor folks probably didn't deserve that! :-) So good to hear from you!

  6. Melissa,
    Your "voice" so nicely balances sentimentality and intellectualism; accessible, yet entirely authentic and personal. I enjoyed this post far more than anything I have written and, out of pure selfishness, I hope the name for your own blog continues to escape you.;)...Pillow Book is a much for thoughtful and thought-provoking blog when you're around.

    1) If it makes "Puff" seem more "manageable," the Turner household has a cat affectionally referred to as "Cat."
    2) Although there is a Lizzie on the Turner side, I think "Liza" is probably just a name my mom liked. She paired it with "Marie," however, which is my grandmother's middle name. I like that my name seems to "suit" me.
    3) I love distinguished sounding names like Thurston (Turner side) and classic names like Jack (Nunn side). It really is incredibly interesting to trace family names over time...I'm certain there are Flora Hovius Rice's in the Turner clan somewhere.
    4) I love to think of names as "gifts" or packages of hopes and endearments.
    5) Look forward to trying the recipe!

  7. I loved reading your post! Names are such a powerful part of our identity. I love to think of possible names for future children using family names like Turner, Ruby, Lee, Charlene, Etta, etc. I also wrestle with the question of whether our name defines us or we define our name, I believe the latter- but interesting to think about none the less. I can remember as a child having funny conversations with friends about our names- "Can you imagine if your mom had named you ______. You DO NOT look like/act like a _______." Again, cool post- I really enjoyed it. The picture of the recipe reminds me of my kitchen sink pasta- just needs some avocado!!

  8. Liza-- Thanks so much for your kind feedback. Honestly, it has been you and Pillowbook who have pushed me back into contemplative mode. Thank you for creating a community of thoughtful conversation, people who “gather” out of a common fondness for musing the important stuff: avocadoes and awesomeness, acts of daring and carving out home, “Berryian sensibilities” and “dazzling intensity.” It’s all food for the soul.

    Lindsey-- It is a good question, whether our names define us or the opposite, and I do enjoy hearing about others’ family names. Yours are wonderful-- I especially like Turner and Ruby. Thanks for putting avocadoes back on our radar. My 5-year-old will eat avocado spread on a cracker with a little salt and pepper-- yummy and nutritious!