First names make a statement, middle names tell a story. Often they preserve a memory. In the Jewish tradition, there is a disinclination to name after the living. Ours is not a culture of ‘Junior’s or ‘Second’s. The important people keep their own names when they are alive and then it is sometimes the letter, the initial sound of the moniker only, that gets passed down. My middle name is Jena, for instance, after my great grandfather Jacob. When it came time to choose a middle name for our son, we were certain of its source, so very sadly.
I heard Oliver’s heartbeat for the first time a mere matter of days before my husband’s sister, Stella, died of cancer. No matter how aware you are of the cycle of life and death in the abstract, losing a close family member in the same year as giving birth to a new one drives home its power in an unparalleled way. Stella was a bright light, as her name suggests, and her parents must have known that because it was not a particularly common thing to call a girl in 197os England. We had the option of going with the ‘S’ alone, but I wanted to enshrine the ‘star’ aspect. It so happened that the year before I became pregnant, celebrities Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany, an Anglo-American couple just like us, had a boy. They called him Stellan, a Swedish name I had never heard of before. It was perfect.
Life and death continued to swirl together with the next child, as my second son came into this world on my uncle’s birthday, my Uncle Russel who had been killed in a car crash 12 years earlier. It was a wild coincidence of dates and it should have been a sign. There is a large part of me that regrets not making Leo’s middle name Russell – I would have spelled it with two ‘l’s – after my mother’s younger brother, a second child himself. My husband didn’t like the name enough to use it solely for its significance. And while we could have done something with an ‘R’, we picked Isaac instead. Isaac, the only one of the middle names which was chosen for aesthetic reasons only. We loved the name, plain and simple. Its old Jewish feel, its striking double ‘a’. If I had known for certain that we would be having another son, I would have saved it. Alas.
Our ‘third’ baby, however, was not a boy. She was a girl, longed for not because I longed for a daughter but because I longed for three children. Badly. My husband did not. The decision took cajoling, it took negotiation, so when he finally did concede there was an air of now or never to getting pregnant. That two week wait between the pangs of ovulation and the pink line on the stick is otherworldly in any circumstance, a no man’s land between not knowing and then knowing, instantly, that your life is about to change. The two week wait to find out Phoebe was on the way, which then became a six week wait to find out Phoebe and Jasper were on the way, felt eternal.
Half of it took place on Skye, a stunning island off the west coast of Scotland, where we were having a late spring holiday. As we sat one day on a small patch of beach overlooking the harbor of Portree, the boys were playing in the sand and my mind was making deals with the wind. If I did manage to get pregnant, I said to myself, and if it was a girl, her middle name would be Skye. And then I did and she was.
But my sister talked me out of Skye nonetheless. My sister was the only person other than the one who sired them that I discussed the names of my kids with before they were born. I trusted her opinion implicitly and I wouldn’t have been happy with a name she wasn’t happy with too. It’s not Skye, she said, in a frantic email exchange conducted from my hospital bed: it’s Isla! Another Scottish island (Islay) that meant something to us, an island famed for its whisky-making and stark landscape, and the probable first name of the second twin had that one been a girl as well. I wasn’t sure at first; I remembered the unspoken pact. But when she wrote out all of the children’s names together – Isla partnering so well with Isaac, making sense of it in a way – it became clear.
Leo and Phoebe, the heavy-voweled first names, were now connected by their similar-sounding middle names. Oliver and Jasper, the ‘er’ set, would be comparably linked. The name Jasper was a concession for my husband. Concessions, well, they lend themselves to consolation prizes. In this case, it was Dylan. After Bob Dylan. My husband is a great fan of the 1960s/1970s folk rock scene, to the point where, when I am feeling magnanimous, I let him think that Leo was named for Leonard Cohen. Now he can say with confidence that his last son shares something ineffable with one of his musical heroes. I liked the name, on the other hand, because the ‘lan’ ending complemented Stellan.
The full name matters. What comes in the middle is not a throw-away. It is a bridge between the individuality of the first name and the legacy of the last. For a parent, it is another opportunity to engage in the wonder of creating a tiny new identity. For a child, it is the gift of their own story to tell.