Before I go, I have something to say

What’s in a Name?

Last August, my son and his wife welcomed twin daughters into the world. Bob and I were there, along with the other about-to-be grandparents and a few other lucky family members. Months before, Dan had called with the astonishing news of two babies, where we thought there was one.

Two girls, identical. Major shopping was in order, for a twin stroller, another car seat, a second bassinet. There were already enough clothes for quintuplets. The knitters went back to their needles; the quilter started laying out another pastel masterpiece. I’d already declared at the baby shower that I would supply my grandchild with every illustrated book ever granted the Caldecott Medal. Would they need a double set now? No, they would not. If there’s one thing twins learn early, it’s sharing. Better yet, they could both snuggle into my lap and look at the pictures as I read aloud Make Way for Ducklings or The Snowy Day.

Their names would be a secret, the parents-to-be decided, to be revealed when we took them into our arms in the hospital. The doctor called them Baby A and Baby B, but when Dan and Shanna were alone at home, they called them by name, keeping track as they traded places.

The hectic preparation was exhausting. One evening, while they were hanging out with Shanna’s family, she announced one of the babies was kicking. “Vera?” asked Dan without thinking. Oh, dear. The cat was out of the bag, one of them, anyway. The family, of course, wanted to know both of their names, so they told them. So much for Baby A and B.

When Dan  offered to tell me, I said there was no need, but his sister wanted to know. As they talked on the phone, I eavesdropped shamelessly. I love witnessing the friendship of my grown children. As Allison listened, I watched for her response. Her face lit up. “OH, that’s so sweet!” she said, or maybe “so great!” or “cool!” or “perfect”! When he told her the other name, she did it again.

I couldn’t stand it. I had to know. Taking the phone, I told him, “Okay. Tell me.” And so I learned that Baby A was Vera; Baby B Jane. So sweet! So great! So cool! So perfect!

What is it about naming someone, or some thing? When God tells Adam to name all the animals (Genesis 2:20), he is promised dominion over every one. This begs the question:  If you get to name a living creature, does that make you its master? Think of all the slaves named after plantation owners, as if they didn’t arrive from Africa with wholly complete names and identities. Their children would carry the slaveholder’s last name, and sometimes his choice of first name, too. What a loss. Naming your child is a sacred act, an honor due only to parents.

As it turned out, there was still one surprise (or rather, two) waiting for us on the big day. Having revealed their daughters’ first names prematurely, Dan and Shanna were more vigilant about safekeeping their middle names. It wasn’t until our little family parade burst into the hospital room that they were fully introduced. Dan handed out babies to new grandmothers, telling us in turn, “This is Jane Lynn. This is Vera Iona.”

Well. You could have knocked me over with a feather, were I not so intent on standing steady as I held close that first warm and sleepy loaf of bread. “Thank you,” I whispered to my son. Thank you for remembering my own mother – Iona Ripperton Kress – this way. My kids always said my parents were their favorites, but I wasn’t expecting this.

Now I’m reading a children’s book about names. It starts like this:

The day I was born, my parents gave me three names.

One was my first name. This is what my parents and my friends and my teachers call me. My first name is special, because it’s a beautiful name, and because when my mom or dad says, “I love you,” and my first name, I know they’re talking just to me.

I was also given a last name. My last name is special, because it’s a family name, and when my dad was born, he was given that same name. I share my last name with other people, like my mom, who decided to take my dad’s last name when they got married. My aunt’s last name is the same, too, because she’s my dad’s sister. There are other people – great-aunts and uncles and cousins – who belong to my last-name family, and live all over the world, even in Russia! Maybe someday I will meet some of them.

In between my first name and my last name, where it is kept extra safe, is my middle name. My middle name is special, because it is a beautiful name, and because there are not too many girls with that name anymore. It was a popular name a long time ago. And it’s extra-special because it is the same name as my dad’s Grandma Iona

Oh! Did I say I was reading that book? It seems I’m writing my first children’s book, for Vera Iona Zordell, so she will know how much her middle name means. (Let me hasten to say right here that her sister Jane will have her own book.) It will be illustrated with wonderful vintage photos of Iona as a baby in a buggy, a child riding a trike with a neighbor boy, a new mother holding her own daughter, and many more.

Iona is a lovely name. It’s a name to carry proudly into the future, with a kiss on the cheek for the past.

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