Naming Stories

Late one night while nursing my baby, I read on the West Chicago City Museum website this description of Clarence Hayward’s baby shoes (pictured above):

Shoes belonging to Clarence Hayward (1894-1896). Clarence Hayward died as a toddler and the next boy born in the family was also given the name Clarence. The second Clarence Hayward lived from 1901-1979 and is buried in Glen Oak cemetery.

As the mother of two small children, I can’t imagine what it feels like to experience the death of a child. I felt sadness for Clarence’s parents. As a new parent, I feel akin to other parents who have braved birth and daily life with children. I wondered what it would feel like to name and live with a child the same name as one that had died. And what was it like for Clarence Hayward to be the second child in the family with the same name as his deceased brother?

I like to think that people’s names are reflective of their personalities. My Uncle Ike’s name seemed perfectly suited to him—he dined out for almost every meal, loved gambling on the horses, and slathered baby oil on his deep olive skin when we sunbathed together in the 1980s. When the time arrived for my partner and I to name our first child, we considered a lot of different names. I hoped to find a name that would embody her personality. He wanted a name that didn't come up as a name of a stripper when googled. I wanted something unique instead of a name shared by many. When I was in school, Jennifer and Michael were the most popular names with quite a few students needing to adopt an initial to differentiate Jennifer H from Jennifer F or Michael S from Michael T. I felt fortunate to be the only Jody in my classes and wanted that same experience for my child. Family lore has it that I was supposed to be a boy because my basketball coach father already had two daughters. So my parents were going to name me Joseph after my father. Jody was a name they considered for my older siblings and it has some similarities to Joseph so that’s what my parents named me —after they were surprised with a third daughter.

On the day of my daughter’s birth, we went to the hospital with a few names. I thought that after meeting her, one of the three names would feel right and match her disposition. But that didn’t happen. She was a tiny baby born three weeks early. Being my firstborn, I had no idea what her personality was like—all I knew is she could go from sleepy to screaming in a second. We were overjoyed that she and I were both healthy after some complications and thought everyone else in our family would be too.  It took us a few days to settle on the name Zadie. My partner and I learned of this name from the British author Zadie Smith, whose work we enjoy. Little did we know her name could have been perceived to have come from the Yiddish nickname for grandpa Zayde--a misunderstanding that would cause family strife and hurt feelings in our extended family. Three years later, the turmoil about her name has subsided, and Zadie truly has become a fitting moniker for our zippy girl.

We didn’t settle on a name for our second child until the week of his birth. For months we had a short list but nothing rose to the top. Again I was awake in the middle of the night looking online—this time at baby boy names—and came upon Lars. People ask if we named him after Lars Ullrich from the band Metallica (although my partner is a fan) or if we have Norwegian heritage. Nope to both—we just liked the name. At one year old, Lars is a fitting name for our sweet son.

After reflecting on my own experiences of naming two children, I am interested in learning about your names. I invite you to contribute stories of why you were given your name or how you chose the name for your offspring. Please share your story.

This project, Naming Stories, is part of the Where Progress and History Meet exhibition at the West Chicago City Museum curated by Sarah Phalen and Anni Holm.

Search by name or place to explore the project.