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The following essay is re-published with the permission of its original author Robbie Blair. You can view the full essay here.

A name is not a small thing. I didn’t realize its full weight until I read Helen Keller‘s account of her genesis in the world of language and identity. In Keller‘s blind, deaf, pre-linguistic experience, there was only sensation. Keller tells how she was given a doll, and how her teacher attempted to tell her what doll meant. “I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor,” says Keller. It was later that same day that Keller discovered language in the experience famously captured in The Miracle Worker.

“Somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me,” recounts Keller. “I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.”

It was only once the set of sensations embodied by “doll” had a name that Keller experienced guilt. To dash the doll to pieces wasn’t merely changing the experiences: It was destroying its very doll-ness. To understand that identity could be more than mere sensation was the beginning of an entirely new world for her. “When I learned the meaning of ‘I’ and ‘me’ and found that I was something, I began to think,” said Keller. “Then consciousness first existed for me.” It is this process of naming and defining that creates the world of the conscious mind.

For years I worked to consciously create an identity for myself as Rob D Young.  I created heavy self-perceptions, definitions, a brand of self. I established a reputation. I decided who “Rob D Young” is.

Then about six months ago I started seriously considering changing my name to Robert Blair in honor of my grandfather. Two years ago my grandfather started bleeding internally for no reason in particular. Not long thereafter he had what he dubbed “a bit of a problem with gravity.” I don’t know how people handle this process; I don’t know how to wait for the death of someone I love. There are so many ceremonies and processes and support systems for the passing of a loved one, but the gradual waning beforehand aches fiercely and we are given little else besides the ticking clock. We remind ourselves to remain grateful for whatever time he has left, and we try not to feel guilty for wanting him to stay around in a breaking body for even longer.

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familyhand

Family names are important to nearly three-quarters of expectant parents, according to a nameberry poll , but for parents whose own mother and father have passed away, choosing a name that honors them and keeps their memory alive may take on a special significance.

That’s one important message of Allison Gilbert‘s new book Parentless Parents.

When Gilbert‘s second child and only daughter was born after she’d lost both her parents, choosing a name that echoed theirs helped soothe her loneliness.

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