Thursday, March 31, 2011
My Favorite Name
Before David and I ever seriously started thinking about kids, I was already seriously thinking about their names. I'm good with names. I remember people's names. I memorize all my students' names by the end of the second class. When I meet people, I like to know how they spell their names (if I can picture the name written down, I'm far more likely to remember it). I like to know if there's a story behind a baby's name, whether it's a family name, or if they were named after someone famous, or a favorite character, or a favorite place, or whether a name that was coined just because the parents liked the sound of it.
I felt like choosing a baby name was serious business. Maybe it was because I think I got pretty lucky with my name. People often compliment on it (and I say thank you as though I selected it myself). The truth is that my mom had always wanted to name her daughter Elizabeth but after she married a guy whose last name was Taylor, well, it was obvious that name had already been taken.
(Speaking of which, I was saddened to hear that Elizabeth Taylor passed away while we were in Florida--that lady had some serious moxie. When I was a kid, I heard something about her having "violet eyes" and I decided that I wanted my eyes to be violet so in second grade on a tell-about-yourself worksheet, I wrote, Hair: Brown. Eyes: Violet. Which was a total lie because they are a very ordinary blue.)
So since Elizabeth was out, my parents found another name they could both agree on--Brooke. It was actually inspired by a character on the soap opera General Hospital (although I'm not sure that Brooke was an ideal role model). I didn't always like my name. As a kid, I used to long for a multi-syllabic "princessy" name: Isabella, Sabrina, Bianca, Katerina, Alyssa. Or, a cute name that ended in "ie" or "y" like all the cool girls in my class: Lori, Kerri, Kelly, Katie, Nikki, Leslie.
Now I appreciate my name because it's easily recognizable but not overly common. And although it sometimes gets spelled wrong when people drop the "e" (even my students), it's never mispronounced.
My middle name, Diane, is for my mom's childhood best friend, who died just a few weeks before I was born (it would have been my middle name anyway) and even though I used to wish it was Diana (more glamorous!), I love the sentimental part of it.
I made up my mind early on that my kids would have names that were interesting. And awesome! And original! And smart-sounding! At one point, I was convinced that my future children would be named Scarlett Wildrose and Sebastian Merryweather. When I was in fourth grade, I read the Baby Name Book that my mom had and selected my favorite cat's name accordingly: Frances. Because it meant "free," and Frances had been a stray who wandered in off the street. I was disappointed that my own name didn't have a more interesting meaning than from the brook (lame!). And I was jealous of my friends who had names with more romantic or cutesy meanings. Amanda: beloved. Melissa: honey bee.
Of course I've always been a big reader, so I also thought that I'd choose to name a baby after a favorite book character. Maybe one of L. M. Montgomery's--Anne, Emily, Sarah. Or a name inspired by one of the Little Women--Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy. Perhaps Lyndall from Olive Schreiner's Story of an African Farm. Or Maggie after Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss, my favorite George Eliot novel. For a long time I really favored Emma after Jane Austen's character, but then it was STOLEN by Rachel on Friends and I gave it up.
Of course when I actually got married, I picked a guy with a doozy of a last name: Duckworth. I kept my maiden name for lots of reasons (detailed here, if you are actually interested or if you are bored and just want to see a wedding photo) but I felt the weight of responsibility for my future children. With a last name like Duckworth, you've got to be careful. There's a whole list of names that (in my personal opinion) are automatically off limits: Daisy. Donald. Hugh. Louis. Dewey. Ebenezer. Drake. Also, Lucky.
And when I actually got pregnant and we found out it was a girl, we quickly realized that there were more non-eligible names.
Everybody has a list of names they'd never touch. Usually associated with obnoxious people you know or your spouse' ex(es). Since David taught PE at the time and saw every kid in kindergarten through third grade, and I'd been teaching college students for quite a few semesters, we had an especially long list. Many conversations we'd have would go something like this:
[all names changed, of course]
I'd say something like, "What do you think of the name Kendall?"
"Well, do you want her to be a bad listener and pick her nose constantly?"
"Hmm. Okay, no. How about Madeline? I always liked the Madeline books."
"Madeline is cute but there are about 25 Maddies in my school right now. The only more common name is Alexandra."
"Felicity? That's not very common."
"Well, I shouldn't say this about a second grader, but the Felicity I know is kind of a bitch. She tattles, too."
Then David would make a suggestion.
"Do you like Lucy?"
"Omigosh in third grade I watched this girl named Lucy puke up her lunch onto her lunch tray and it looked like pink mashed potatoes. I'd think of that every time I said her name."
"What about Andrea?"
"Isn't that the name of that girl you took to prom? I don't think so."
"Oh, I had a student named Meredith and she was tardy every day and handed in every assignment late and then said I was unfair when I gave her a C. Also she smelled like beans."
And so it went.
I honestly can't remember how we landed on the name Eliza. I know that it's a name I'd always liked. It always seemed to me rather unfairly assigned to spinster aunts and strict school teachers in nineteenth-century novels. But I thought it was a really lovely name, a derivative of Elizabeth that sounded more musical.
Most important, it met all of my crazy made-up criteria. First of all, it was a real, easily recognizable name. No one on Jersey Shore or The Hills was named Eliza. It felt classic to me, in an old-fashioned sense. It wasn't too weird or too cutesy so it matched well with the last name Duckworth. It wasn't too stuffy or too silly, and it was somewhat serious without being boring. Neither of us had ever had a student named Eliza, so it wasn't tainted by tattling, nose-picking, eye-rolling, or tardiness. My husband had never dated an Eliza (that I know of!). And I felt like it was the sort of name that was suited to a variety of respectable future career paths. I could imagine it looking impressive on a business card (of course I typed it a lot, in various fonts, to make sure). I thought it was the sort of name that had enough sparkle to look lovely in Broadway lights, but was solid enough to be followed by a phrase like "Supreme Court Justice."
In other words, it was the perfect name. Versatile, elegant, sparkly, solid, not overly popular, slightly bookish but adorable, and (I think) slightly British sounding. Eliza Duckworth seemed to me reminiscent of Eliza Doolittle, and any association with Audrey Hepburn was a positive in my opinion.
Of course, we had a few other options we were considering, and for a long time I thought we really weren't sure about it.
I had a moment of truth when I made a friend named Eliza--she introduced me to her PEO chapter (which I decided to join). This was a make it or break it moment, because we all know that whether we know someone casually or intimately, sometimes a specific association is enough to eliminate interest in a name. This is why names move generationally. Nobody my age is naming their babies Amanda or Jennifer because we were surrounded by Amandas and Jennifers when we were in school. Likewise, my mom's generation did not give births to Debbies and Connies because they knew so many of them. Most of our favorite names don't belong to anyone we know in real life, or belong to a friend or family member we want to honor. So even though I really liked my friend Eliza, did I want to name my baby Eliza now that I knew another one in real life? In the end, I told my friend Eliza that although I'd liked the name before I met her, knowing her didn't change my mind about it, and I meant that as a HUGE compliment to her. (She's always been partial to her name, so when I told her it was in the running, she rooted for Eliza as our choice.)
And then my great-aunt Beth sent an e-mail listing various family names I might want to consider, and the list included the name Eliza (as well as Azulah, Elvina, and Thankful, which did not make our short list although if we ever have another baby and it lives, we might totally follow the Puritan tradition and name the baby something like Thankful Hopeful Joyful Delightful Holy Shit Balls We Are So Glad You Are Alive Duckworth). Eliza was the name of a great aunt born in 1809 on the Talcott side (my mom's side). We had decided to use Taylor as a middle name no matter what (which eliminated the possibility of Sophia or Stella--both previous favorites--because I wasn't going to saddle her with the initials S.T.D.). I liked the idea of paying homage to my mom's side of the family with her first name and my dad's side with her middle name (of course David's family was represented with his last name).
We practiced saying it. I imagined singing "Little Liza Jane" to her. I wrote her name in cursive and then printed it. I imagined a teacher calling role for "Eliza Duckworth." I considered how it looked with our names: Brooke, David, and Eliza. We knew David's grandmother wasn't a big fan of the name (she preferred Elizabeth), and that gave me pause, but David (perversely) seemed to like it more after she expressed her (unsolicited) opinion. When my friend Stephanie mentioned that she liked old-fashioned names and was favoring a girl's name that began with an "E," I sent her a somewhat frantic e-mail--"Are you considering Eliza? Because it's my favorite name" (Fortunately, she named her baby Evelyn).
So even though I kept telling people we hadn't decided, or we had it narrowed down to two names, we knew by late November that she was going to be our Eliza.
But then it was December 6th. And she didn't have a heartbeat.
And there we were, shell-shocked and heartbroken, and the nurse wanted to know what we were going to name our poor, sweet, dead baby.
To tell the truth, I wasn't sure I wanted to call her Eliza. After all, that was the name for a live baby. A baby who would grow up and need business cards. A baby who might be an actress or a writer or a Supreme Court Justice. A name we would shout at t-ball games and write on birthday cakes and print on the inside of jackets and lunchboxes. A name we would say out loud everyday for the rest of our lives. That was why I had so carefully selected the perfect name for her. I thought maybe we should save it. I didn't want to let go of the possibility of introducing people to "My daughter, Eliza."
When I read Elizabeth McCracken's An Exact Replica... the naming of her baby was one of many things that resonated with me. I understood why she named her baby "Pudding" because my first impulse was to name our baby "Baby Duck." We hadn't started calling her "Eliza." We'd still been calling her "Baby Duck." That had been her name as long as I knew her! Maybe we should call her something else now, something we hadn't thought about before, when we were so happy and hopeful.
But when I suggested calling her something else, David said no. (And I am forever grateful for that.) He said that Eliza was her name. It had been his absolute favorite all along, even when I declared I was still undecided.
And so Eliza is her name. It's the name of my first daughter and the baby I miss with all my heart. It's the name that's spelled out on the silver bracelet I wear everyday. My Brazilian friend Carol pronounces it "Eleeza" and I think it's adorable that way too. It's a name I love to see written or hear said aloud. I happen to think it's the most beautiful name in the world.
It's my most favorite name and since there was so little I was able to give her, I'm glad I could give her that.
And I would really like to hear about your favorites names--why you named your children what you did or the story behind your own name (and it's ok with me if you talk about living babies--I wish we all were talking about them).