My niece was born with a shock of dark hair and a robust appetite, my own two trademark traits. Still, when my sister Ruth and her husband, Peter, named this new child Elizabeth Frances only her surname differs from mine I was astonished.
"You must be so honored!" a friend said.
"Well, maybe," I replied.
In fact, I thought such a reaction might be presumptuous; I wasn't so certain that my new niece actually had been named after me.
When little Lizzie's parents told me her full given name a rather imposing moniker for a tiny girl they had watched my face carefully.
As I teared up, Ruth had added quickly, as though attempting to avert a surfeit of sentiment, "The middle name's for Dad, of course, but with the feminine spelling. As for the first name, we just really like it."
Perhaps their choice really was based on an uncomplicated fondness for "Elizabeth," with a dollop of de facto pleasure derived from the coincidence involved. Even so, later that night, I couldn't resist mentally preening a bit. I've always liked my name, myself. And maybe I've given them good reason to like it, too, having consistently doted on my kid sister.
Struggling to be humble, I told myself that at the very least I hadn't ruined this name for the new parents. And they hadn't asked me (thus far, anyway) to change my name to something else.
The reasons for naming a child are often too complex, and too personal, to warrant the sort of analysis I tried to apply. Yet that eternal, childlike question, why, niggled at my curiosity as much as at my ego.
Suppose I had never been born: Would Ruth and Peter's newborn bear this name just the same? Maybe, but who could say?
I chided myself for making too much of it. At the same time, sharing my name with a beloved child seemed to imply a kind of responsibility as a role model, for starters, one who upholds important, if intangible, family mores.
In our ever-changing naming culture, boys are often named after their fathers, though less frequently these days. When they are, we don't ponder what this tradition means. We already know, or we think we do, even if we don't articulate the reasons in so many words.
As a custom, naming a child after an aunt or uncle isn't quite so cut and dried. Nonetheless, it seems to contain the expectation of a special relationship. Just how special, and in what ways, differs in each case.
Once I met Lizzie, I stopped pondering the reasons behind her name. She was simply a marvelous 10-day-old person in her own right, and explanations were beside the point. Of course she had been named "after" me! if only in the sense that I was born first, by a comfortable margin.
Soon thereafter, Ruth telephoned. I heard an unabashed yowl in the background. "Your namesake is awake," my sister remarked, her tone matter-of-fact.
That surprising, singular word, "namesake," sent me straight to my dictionary. The first definition read, "a person named after another." The second was "a person having the same name as another." Which means that not only is Lizzie my namesake; I'm her namesake, too.
That suggests a reciprocal relationship, I've decided. Some day, Lizzie may wonder, as I have, what sharing our name signifies. By then, the answers may be so richly apparent to me that she need only ask.
In the meantime, I'm looking forward to all the other lovely things she and I may share.