Sunday, November 9, 2008

What's In a Name?

So many people ask us why we chose Frances Bernadette for a name. For starters, its because we're not the sort of people who go for trendy, overused names. I call them "cookie cutter names" and "conformist names." I see them all the time on my class lists--names so popular that they've lost all character...Amber, Dawn, Heather, Tiffany, or any name after the latest Disney character--ugh--a dime a dozen--like romance novels and development houses (I grew up in a development where all the homes were from one of three floor plans), one is just as good as another. Ours will be no cookie-cutter child, not if I have anything to say about it. As the adoption got underway and we discussed possible names, Suzanne and I arrived at the name "Frances Bernadette" and it stuck. I was very pleased about it, and very protective of it until just recently. For years, when people would ask what we were going to name the baby, if I didn't feel like sharing it with them, I would say "Agatha Hortense" and get this perverse pleasure out of watching people try to come up with something nice to say about it. I'd even talk about some of the gorier aspects of St. Agatha's legend, and watch them try to come up with something nice to say about it. I think it comes from being a teacher and watching my students lie to me. I like making people think on their feet. I'm funny that way.
So anyway--Frances Bernadette is her name. At first we were going to name our daughter Kathleen Elizabeth. I've always loved the name Kathleen. But its so stereotypically Irish, and though Suzanne and I each have a bit of Irish blood in us, neither of us is so Irish that it warrants giving our child such a name. So in the end, we sort of took the easy way out and named her after our grandmothers.
One old artifact I have from a bygone era is an old metal stationery embosser--it looks kind of like a notary public's seal. It belonged to my paternal grandmother, and the date stamped on the device is 1912. The embosser leaves the initials F.B.P. And so when I found this, we began brainstorming names that would go with the embosser--thinking our daughter could then put the device to use and be the only one to hand in embossed homework. My paternal grandmother's name was... big surprise here... Frances. But. the fact is, she never really went by Frances, except on legal documents. Her maiden name was Frances Beulah Pike, and she went by Beulah. Her headstone lists her as "Beulah" but the name "Beulah," in me, evokes memories of hospital beds, cans of Ensure, incontinence pads and the smell of moth balls. (It wasn't my grandmother's fault that she was at that stage of life when I knew her... it just came down to the fact that the paraphernalia of old age isn't something I want to evoke in my mind whenever I utter my child's name--call me crazy) So Beulah wasn't an option. But Frances sounded had potential... Frances we could deal with. Frances sounded dignified without being too old fashioned.
The middle name, Bernadette, we came by easily. Suzanne's paternal Grandmother's name was Bernadine. Again, Bernadine sounds a bit too old ladyish, but Suzanne has always liked St. Bernadette of Lourdes, so Frances Bernadette sounded pretty good. We spent a lot of time trying to come up with a second middle name that began with 'P,' so that our daughter could use the embosser-- but nothing appealed. Suzanne said that the name Patricia had been done to death in her family--her other grandmother uses it as a nickname, and her cousin was given the name in honor of the grandmother, so enough of that. We thought about Penelope and Phoebe--but when you take two names like Frances and Bernadette-- one more strong old name just makes her sound too fuddy-duddyish. Imagine-- Frances Bernadette Penelope or Frances Bernadette Phoebe-- they were just too much. Penny was an option for a few minutes, but my father is a passionate collector of coins and we didn't want to give him any encouragement, as he'll already be giving the child coins every year for Christmas and Birthday gifts, and if he focussed on pennies, well, there would be so many more of them than if he focussed on larger denominations (he's already giving her coins... it has already started...this baby will be the first Chinese adoptee who has her own safe deposit box before she even arrives in the US) so we eventually decided that we would do something with her Chinese name for a second middle name, and secretly hoped that there would be a P somewhere in her Chinese name--but we had no such luck. Her chinese name was Lin Shi Tong. When we had it spelled to us over the phone, we didn't see the glaring problem. But when we saw it written "Shitong" on one of her documents, we were like... oh, this isn't going to work. Our last name is Wood... and "Shit On Wood" was just too brutal a name to saddle our child with--but we liked that they called her Tong-Tong, so we decided to reverse things and use Tong-Shi as a second middle name. And that is how we came up with her name.
Anyway, just for some background... here are some bios of the people Frances is named after.
Frances Beulah Pike
circa 1919

taken in the Summer of 1985
Frances Beulah Pike was born in a small town which was situated just south of Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1901. She was the only child of her father (though her mother had a much older daughter from a previous marriage), who was a prosperous farmer and businessman who would later lose everything he had in the Depression. My grandmother finished High School (and was the only girl in the class on 1919 at her High School) and went to nursing school in Chicago, and was a registered nurse, working for most of her career in the Kalamazoo State Hospital. She lived as a single woman until she was in her late thirties, when she married my grandfather. She was a devout Episcopalian, and was a Daughter of the King with St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Kalamazoo. She was a second cousin to the infamous James Pike, the late Episcopal Bishop of California in the 1950's and 60's whose radical theology bordered on gnosticism and who participated in seances to try to contact his dead son (you can read about Bishop Pike here--and if you ask my father about this connection, he plays dumb and disclaims any knowledge of him, but I've done the genealogy...) My father says it was his mother's commitment to his education that pushed him to getting his PhD, and she was so fed up with the little country schools in the small rural suburb of Kalamazoo where they lived that she paid tuition to send my father to better schools in the city. My father was her only child, and I was her only grandchild. She lived with us in New Jersey towards the end of her life, and I saw a lot of her growing up, though by that time she was in failing health and she had dementia and would sometimes confuse me with my father.

Suzanne and her sister Catherine with their "Grandma Bee"
at Suzanne's graduation from Aquinas College in 1996.
Bernadine Irene Earley was born in Lansing in 1925, and supported herself, as well as her parents and two children, with her job with General Motors. This is a tradition that she passed down to Suzanne's father and uncle, both of whom also work in the automotive industry. She lived near Suzanne when she was growing up, and she was Suzanne's confirmation sponsor, and was very involved in the lives of her grandchildren. Suzanne remembers many long visits at Bernadine's home, which was situated on many acres of land out in a rural suburb of Jackson, Michigan. Bernadine hosted most of the family's holidays, and supported her grandchildren's education in the Catholic Schools. Bernadine knew how to throw a party, and was very generous with her grandchildren, and even with me. Though she didn't live to see us get married, when Suzanne and I were dating, I would often receive generous gifts from Bernadine on holidays and when I graduated from college, which I thought was very kind of her considering I was just the boyfriend of her granddaughter. (Suzanne thinks this generosity was because Bernadine's favorite husband's name was Dale...)


Alyson & Ford said...

I love the names Frances and Bernadette.
AA was named for my Great-Grandmother (paternal side); "Lizzy" and I **assumed** growing up that her name was Elizabeth so fell in love with it. Fast forward many years when I found out her legal given name was Lizzy! I still loved the name but changed the spelling. My Great-Great Aunt, her sister, name was Frances and my Grandmother's best friend was Bernadette! Great names!
Enjoyed reading your story.


Alice said...

Dale, I love this thorough and entertaining--and illustrated-- background of Frances Bernadette Tong Shi Wood! And so will she, when she's old enough to learn the story.You have a precious document here.

About Bishop Pike: He was bishop when I came to the California Bay Area in 1960, married in 1961 and had my first child in 1966. Pike was definitely a troubled man, but at his best, he was a kind of John the Baptist iconoclast (ironic that he died in J the B's wilderness...)and definitely helped to loosen up some of the church's rigidity. I love that he took the first step toward ordaining women.

A very good friend of mine (named Frances!) and her late husband (a priest) were close friends with Jim and Esther Pike in the Virginia and New York years. Frances and George were devastated when he divorced Esther. They were sure he was losing his marbles, and that his son's suicide was a direct result of his father's aberrations.
Poor man. God rest his soul.


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