Waiting in line at the mall today, I noticed a frazzled young mother. She picked through a table of clearance merchandise while pleading with her preschool son, who had penetrated a tightly packed rack of sweat pants.
"Isaac, come out, please."
"Mom, this is my fort."
"Mom, this is the jungle." Isaac poked his head from between two big cotton legs. "Mom, these are trees. Mom, I'm in the jungle. Mom...."
She sighed. "Isaac, please."
As the mother of three children under 5, their routine was as familiar to me as the character on "Sesame Street," Mr. Noodle's brother, Mr. Noodle. But I realized what made it unique when the hip 20-something cashier smiled at Isaac's mom. "Great name," he said. "Really great."
I couldn't wait to rush home and tell Isaac.
Until recently, my husband's name was a mild curiosity, reserved for great-grandfathers; elderly neighbors from Queens with thick, charming accents; and a quirky celebrity mix: Newton, Hayes, Asimov, Bashevis Singer, and the Love Boat's bartender.
Today Isaac is in style again, ringing in the air at playgrounds, preschools, and prenatal wards. Soon all those little Isaacs will fill kindergarten classrooms, Little League teams, then elementary schools and high schools. They will make their way to college campuses, into the work force, where they will join the thousands of Sams, Jacks, Blakes, and Alexanders who are just now coming out of diapers.
Such is the life cycle of a name. Mine has not won any popularity contests in 35 years or so. But what a heyday it had! In the late 1970s, I shared a college apartment with two friends. We were, no joke, Patty, Patty, and Patty. Not Pat or Trish or Patsy, although a fair share of these certainly existed. Our friends were Debbies, Nancys, Peggys, and Susans. We dated Pauls, Marks, Richies, and Jimmys, popular names for popular boys. We sympathized with those cursed with names like Emma, Ethan, Hannah, and Henry, but silently thanked God our own parents had not been so thoughtless, so reckless.
I try not to imagine what my own preschoolers, Dora and Bea, along with their friends Kayla, Samantha, and Emily, will say about my name a few years from now. My friends and I once believed our own parents' names were well-suited to their tragically bland personalities: Doris and Roland, Marge and Buddy, Dotty and Pete. I recall how we sprinkled our conversations with their names for fun, simply to emphasize their absurdity:
"Did Loretta and Roger say you could go to the party Saturday?"
"What did Bob and Sophie say about your report card?"
It has taken me 40 years to appreciate that those names, those people, were likely once as fashionable and as smug as we were.
I am alarmed, though I shouldn't be, at how my name and those of my friends today symbolize more graying hair and sensible shoes than the brazen superiority of youth. Like every other generation, we believed we were the ones who had invented style and passion, and we felt, perhaps unconsciously, that our stylish names somehow reflected our unprecedented wisdom. No matter that it was our supposedly clueless parents who had named us. We thought and felt more deeply than they did and, equally critical, we understood the importance of fashionable clothes and music.
When looking ahead as a girl to when I would name my own daughters, I was certain I'd choose Lisa or Jennifer, both wildly popular choices in their day. When the time came, however, I did what so many new parents are doing today. I picked names reminiscent not even of my own parents, but of their parents and grandparents.
This, of course, leads to interesting possibilities for my grandchildren. Little Dotty and Pete may end up having the last laugh on their old Grandma Patty. But then, there's always their kids....