Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Time of "Substantial Names"

Though I was still struggling to configure this blog as the workweek closed, the coming of Shabbat turned my attention to cooking and baking in preparation. Every Friday night about 45 minutes before sundown, until three stars are visible on Saturday night (okay, here in overcast Seattle we rely on times printed in our calendar), we set aside all creative activities for family, Torah, refined dinners and lunches with friends and even, sometimes, rest.

At our Shabbat table this week, someone mentioned out-of-favor names, and my daughter, with a snicker, brought up my mother's siblings. My mother was the youngest child in a family that proudly traced its roots all the way back to the Mayflower, a distinction that allows my current membership in the Daughers of the American Revolution.

My grandparents, Charles and Mary Irene, sired ten children, though lost one (Benjamin Cecil) in infancy (1897) and another, Elton Leon, (born ca. 1904) later, perhaps to influenza. Eight survived to become my aunts and uncles. Some were born in Vinton, Iowa, a stop made by the family as it moved from the homestead in Linville, VA, (and a structure still standing, that I have visited) to Los Angeles in the early years of the twentieth century. My mother was the third child born in LA.

My mom used to say that her mother believed in giving her offspring "substantial" names. Let me introduce her family to you. The photo above, taken perhaps 1935, includes from left: Nellie Winifred (Aunt Winnie, who married Uncle Norm, a developer); Clyde William (married to Aunt Carrie. They owned a chicken farm); James Wendell (received mysterious injury that left him rather strange; never married); Francis Irving (the eldest, born in 1895. Developer of the San Fernando Valley, married to Aunt Helen); my grandmother, called Irene; my mother, Genevieve Josephine; Virginia Margaret (Aunt Gee Gee, wanted to be an actress; got committed to a mental institution instead); Mary Irene Pauline (Aunt Pauline, married Uncle Walt, also in real estate); and Floyd Chadbourne (married Aunt Peggy. He too was a developer, whose grand stone cabin among the first at Lake Arrowhead was my family's yearly retreat).
Good, solid American names. Not worthy of my daughter's snicker.
My grandfather, in case you're wondering, made his fortune in Texas oil (There's a town named for him there); sale of the wells divided among his children allowed my parents to purchase their first home.
Each generation has its favored names. My name, unfortunately, identifies me with an era whose monikers are now marching into "old lady name"-hood. I pity the Kalyas and Ashleys and Emmas of today; like the Jennifers before them, they will always be linked to their parents' milieu. The good news is that names considered hopelessly ancient in my youth are coming back: Hello, Sophie! But I'm afraid Ethel and Bertha will have to wait quite awhile for their Renaissance.
Jewish parents are said to get a bolt of heavenly assistance when naming their children, as we believe one's name reflects one's essence. Ashkenazic Jews often name their children after deceased relatives whose traits they hope the newborn will emulate. Sephardic Jews also name their children for loved ones, though the honoree may still be alive. You'll find fewer ephemeral choices among traditional Jews, who ground their children in something substantial, much in the same wholesome spirit of Charles William and Mary Irene.
(FYI: Two of my children have biblical names; the snickerer's means "beautiful" in Yiddish; she is named after one of her Jewish grandmothers.)


  1. My husband favors hard consonants and Bible names for boys. Hence, "Zeke" [short for Robert Ezekiel]. We were also planning a Zack and Zeb [Zechariah and Zebedee], but, alas, two girls, named after grandmothers and the Holy Family took those slots before the clock ran out.

    It must be difficult to become substantial with an ethereal name.

  2. I am fond of the snickerer's name and substance, as I am of her siblings and parents.

  3. You might be interested to know that my great-grandmother's name was Daisy May. Her daughter, my grandmother was name Esculine Elinor. My goodness....

  4. Ruth Anne--I don't know who Zebedee would be in Hebrew...that's an odd one! Deborah--Esculine does take the cake. I heard from an OB nurse of one mother who named her daughter Placenta.

  5. Rob's great greats were the Aldens, also on the Mayflower!! And the funny name story from my own mom's family was that, as missionaries to Jamaica, they named their girls after the "fruits of the Spirit": Faith, Joy, Grace, Hope, and my mom....Phyllis! What a gaffe! Apparently, the lady assisting the birth was named Phyllis, therefore, my mom lost, "Charity"!

  6. Zebedee in the New Testament was father to James and John, who were called 'Boanerges' or 'Sons of Thunder.' I'm suspecting Zebedee roughly equals 'Thunder.'

    Even with my name, Biblical friend who travels forth with her husband, that has proven true.

  7. Off-topic: Has your favorite movie reviewer got plans to see "Fireproof"? I'm wanting to see if this is worth the time to find it.

  8. Ruth Anne, no wonder I don't know Zebedee...New Testament is above my pay grade! :) I always like names that are three letters, though: ZBD! I don't know our fave critic's screening schedule, just that tonight he's gone to another violent one that's 3 hours long! Sorry!

  9. That is one amazing photo... you could just look at it for hours. People were more expressive once... or something.