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Guest columnist: How family impacts baby names

Marc Sedaka
L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service
Vail CO, Colorado

My wife and I have three children: Amanda, Charlotte and Michael. It sounds so simple to rattle off those names now, but getting there was anything but.

Like many expectant parents, we picked out names for our kids long before they were born. First in the offing were twin girls. Amanda Peyton and Charlotte Dawn. We addressed their ultrasounds by name. We had their layettes monogrammed.

But then, exactly one week before the girls’ arrival, my maternal grandmother, Esther, passed away. She was the family matriarch, beloved and revered, so it came as no surprise when my mother asked, in accordance with Jewish tradition, that we give one of our daughters a name beginning with “E” in Esther’s honor. And even though I’d never been bar mitzvahed or spent a single December without a Christmas tree, I was willing to embrace my Jewish heritage just this once if it meant that much to my mother.

Of course, such naming traditions are hardly exclusive to Judaism. Catholics often choose names taken from Scripture or the saints. Some cultures in India bestow names that start with a “lucky” letter based on the newborn’s horoscope. And Sioux tribes have a “naming trail” so complex that a person could pick up half a dozen names in a lifetime. In the grand scheme of things, I was getting off easy.

After a brief huddle, my wife and I agreed that Amanda Peyton would hereafter be known as Amanda Elizabeth. On hearing this news, my mother smiled politely and did her best to mask her disappointment.

“Why not a first name?” she asked.

That hadn’t even occurred to us. Isn’t honoring family what middle names are for?

As it turns out, no.

The actual Jewish tradition is to use the deceased’s entire first name as the baby’s first name. This whole “initial” business seems to have started with my parent’s generation (no doubt to spare us another generation of Moishes and Gertrudes). The tradition regressed further in recent years to include middle names, or so I thought. I can only assume that by the time my own grandchildren are confronted with this issue, it will be incumbent upon them to use at least one letter of my name anywhere within the spelling of either name. Such is the fate of traditions in the New World: They are faithfully carried out to the extent that they are convenient to us.

In the face of such a fickle tradition, yet such a serious request, there are three options. Staunchly maintain your right to name your own children. Honor thy parents above all else. Or, as I did, ruminate, deliberate and vacillate ” hoping to please everyone when, in fact, you ultimately will please no one.

And then the girls were born. Two delicate, beautiful, nameless girls. A nurse handed me the birth certificates, and I looked at them like they were a pop quiz on a book I forgot to read. “When are these due?” I asked. I think she said 48 hours. Maybe five days. Whichever, it was too soon for me.

In the end, a compromise was struck. My daughters’ names ” entered into their birth certificates about 12 hours short of a court order ” would be Charlotte Dawn and Amanda Esther. We got our desired first names. My grandmother’s name was entirely represented. And everyone involved could wholeheartedly agree that they were halfheartedly satisfied.

Fast forward two years. My wife is pregnant, this time with a boy. Again, a name waits in the wings. Michael Preston.

“What about an ‘E’?” asked my mother, frowning. The game is on again.

My wife liked Eric, but I once got beat up by an Eric. I liked Emerson, but she thought that was a girl’s name. The only thing we could agree on was that this whole routine was growing tiresome.

In my ongoing attempt to have it both ways, I told my mother that we would give Michael the middle name Ethan. However, knowing how much that “E” first name meant to her, we would “announce” him as Ethan Michael so her family would think it was his legal name.

All well and good. Except my wife didn’t want “Ethan Michael” on the birth announcements for her friends. The solution? Two birth announcements. (We ran this asinine idea by the printer, who immediately asked, “Jewish grandmother?” I apparently was not alone in my suffering.)

End of story? Almost. The truth is, I never really liked the name Ethan. So, with my wife’s approval, I went through the painful, bureaucratic process (10 forms, no joke) of changing my year-old son’s legal name to Michael Emerson.

As for what my mother thought of the whole Ethan-to-Emerson switch, I can honestly say I don’t know. I haven’t told her yet. I’m too afraid to tell her. Hopefully, she’ll just read this.

Marc Sedaka is a film and television writer in Los Angeles. E-mail comments about this column to editor@vaildaily.com.


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