What's Really in a Name: Why We Named Our Daughter After Her Great-Grandmother


We just returned from a thousand-mile road trip taken to introduce our 4-month-old daughter Betsy to her 92-year-old great-grandmother. I began warming our infant up to the idea of this meeting when I wrote her the following in a letter on her one-week birthday:

The doctor plopped you atop your mom’s belly, and you cried the sweetest cry I will ever hear. It was 1:30 p.m. on March 2, 2015. You weighed a respectable 5 pounds, 11.4 ounces (the heaviest you have weighed since birth), stretched 18 inches long, and had a 31-centimeter head that was slowly regaining color. I know all this because after the adrenaline subsided, I typed it into a memo on my phone titled “Betsy Starts.” (I meant to type “Stats,” but the error is better. You’ll find this in life.) … We named you Elizabeth Jean: “Elizabeth” from both of my grandmothers, “Jean” from my dad’s mom as well as your mom’s mom. (If you turn out like any of these women, the world will not deserve you.)

Elizabeth Jean the Elder (nicknamed “Hon” from childhood) lives in a retirement home in a small Pennsylvania Dutch town surrounded by Amish country. On both of our nights in the dining hall, her usual “gang of six,” whom we had supplanted as dining partners, unhurriedly shuffled by our table to witness both Hons together. The first night, I introduced the Younger as my grandmother’s namesake.

“Well, yes. We know,” the gang replied. “We’ve been waiting on her.”

And rightfully so. She is worth the wait–like her grandmother, as a namesake should be.

Or should it? When you break it down, for whose sake is the name, anyway? Or do I have that wrong–for whose name is the sake?

Upon reflection, of which there is no shortage in Pennsylvania Dutch country, the answer is not so obvious.

Here is a woman who was born in 1922 into a town that still boasts a pre-revolutionary period fort bearing the name of her paternal great (x5) grandfather. People called her father “Judge,” though he was not a judge but a banker, the son of a barber. Her playground was the Great Depression, her education World War II. She married a combat veteran who grew up on the same street as her, although they did not meet until high school, where she was a majorette and he was class president. Together they raised three children, enjoyed two dogs, loved this country, loathed the hippies, recorded Christmas messages on cassette tapes and mailed them to their grandchildren, cared for each other’s heart conditions, buried their daughter, outlived most of their childhood friends, and were married 67 years until my grandfather’s death parted them in 2012.

Her life continues to yield ample justification for having named our child after her, and certainly we meant to honor her by using her name. Call it “for her sake” if you like.

But if “sake” means purpose, benefit, advantage, or even remembrance, then although the name is my grandmother’s, the sake is my little Elizabeth’s. It is my daughter whose purpose we have hoped to define. For her benefit we have indicated whose shoes she should fill. We named the new one in order to enrich her memory and imagination of the original.

It seems my daughter has all the advantages.