My Grandmother’s Name and Legacy
Growing up, I hated my middle name. I shared my middle name, Louise, with my grandmother. For Grandma Roberta, born in the 1920s, “Louise” seemed appropriate as a middle name. To a girl growing up the 1990s, graced with a unique spelling of a highly popular first name, “Louise” seemed too frail to play with – a name that needed to be placed on a lace doily and kept in the china cabinet alongside other valuables. Like “Agnes” or “Eleanor,” my middle name was not keeping up with the hipness of my generation, and it was thoroughly impeding my ability to be “cool.” I vowed that when I had the freedom and legal might to choose my own name at age eighteen, I would shed “Louise” and its hindrance forever.
By my eighteenth birthday, changing my middle name slipped down my priority list when I discovered that legally changing your name costs money. I had also considered how it might hurt my grandmother’s feelings. So I made a new vow: I wound not saddle my own children with names they would not like.
Two years ago, my child’s father and I were nearing the end of our pregnancy. Like any expectant couple, many discussions revolved around naming the baby; having chosen not to find out the baby’s sex until its birthday only further complicated our decision-making process. Coincidentally, my child’s father shares his middle name with his grandfather as well. His grandfather was already deceased and would never have the opportunity to meet our baby. My grandmother was still alive.
In my father’s family, my great-grandfather, grandfather, and father all have the same name. My brother would have been “IV,” but my mom asked for a compromise. In her family, children carry their parents’ or grandparents’ names as middle names. Therefore, my brother’s middle name is the name of three previous generations of his forefathers. His first name, however, is his own.
In my child’s father’s family, the naming isn’t formalized – but the same nickname has been passed from one generation to the next. Their generations-deep small-town Alabama roots create a local aura around their name that I, as an outsider, can never fully understand. Their friends and neighbors know them, know their history, know their collectivity as well as their individuality. I watch them and wonder who will be this generation’s “Buddy,” and it’s really anybody’s guess.
My grandmother, Roberta Louise Crimmel, circa 1945
My middle name, Louise, means “renowned warrior.” My grandmother, Roberta Louise, grew up during the Great Depression, worked for US industry while her husband was away in World War II, raised two daughters in the 1960s and 1970s, remained married for over 50 years before she lost her husband to emphysema, and grandmothered two average-needs and one special-needs children, before becoming a great-grandmother to a healthy, nearly-9 lbs boy. Roberta, the warrior, certainly had a lesson or two ready for him.
Neither our son’s first name, nor his middle name, has anything in common with a relative’s. There is no other “Austin” or “Felix” in either family tree. Austin’s dad and I agreed on names that reference, and have the same initials, as his grandfathers. His first name means “majestic” or “venerable.” His middle name is Latin for “happiness” or “lucky.”
We don’t choose our own names. We are born into families with existing legacies – existing reputations created by existing characters; this is where our surnames come from. And our parents choose for us our first and middle names – generally, in honor of someone they admire. This week, on the first anniversary of my Grandma Roberta Louise’s death, I realize that naming my son was an opportunity to propel the legacy of someone I admire into the future. It was an opportunity to give my child the strength of a name that served well a strong member of his family. A warrior, she left me the legacy of her name, and I, in turn, could have done the same for my child.
Of course, my vow to name him something he doesn’t dislike may have been overzealous. Years from now, my teenage son may also feel that he’s “saddled” with a moniker that is dreadfully un-cool. Roberta Louise would have told him that “there’s more to life than being cool,” but as the young warrior trying to fill her shoes, instead, Austin’s mom will have to teach that to him.