The names that got away

It dawned on me recently that soon I will be an old woman named Star Friend.

An old woman, with a tattoo, named Star Friend.

Of course, there will be plenty of other old ladies with tattoos, but they’ll have names like Melissa and Jennifer. What kind of name is Star Friend for an old lady?

For years I wished my name were Shirley, maybe because of the writer Shirley Jackson. I figured someone named Shirley would be interesting, but not odd, and definitely wouldn’t have to go around apologizing for her weird name. If my name were Shirley, I would have red hair, tortoiseshell glasses, and a better sense of humor.

When I was about 17, I once delivered a pizza to two people in a Victorian house. The man was in his 20s and had a thick ponytail. The woman was in her 50s.

I didn’t get a good look inside the house as I collected the money for their pizza, but I imagined it was furnished with a lot of funky original modern artwork, Oriental rugs, and grandfather clocks. They listened to jazz music. The woman was not his mother. Nor was she his lover, because the age difference between them was too great and that would have been gross. No, that guy in his 20s was hanging out with that woman in her 50s because they were both artists of some kind or another. He liked her because she knew more about their particular art than he did. I figured her name was probably Shirley.

Today I decided that it would be great if my name were Nora.

I came to this conclusion while emailing a woman named Nora. If I were a Nora, I would be taken seriously at all times. I imagine that Noras can quiet a room of noisy kids just by raising an eyebrow. They are feminine, but also intellectual. They have dark brown hair. Noras can be hot at 45 or 50, not Baywatch bimbo hot, but the understated, mysterious kind.

What can we do with these names we wanted, but will never have? What about the other names that got away – the ones we wanted for our sons and daughters, if only our husbands, friends, and family members hadn’t vetoed them?

I have a whole list of those names, mostly for girls.

When I was 21 I told my then-boyfriend that I wanted to have three daughters named Bianca, Rosaline, and Sophia. He said that under no circumstances would he approve of any of those names.

That was OK because we never got married.

My husband didn’t like the name Bianca, either, and neither did any of my friends. One friend said “Bianca” sounded like a promiscuous snob.

Regardless, our first child was a boy. Everyone approved of the name Oliver for him. We got a bit of grief from our parents over our proposal to make his middle name Trout, so we decided not to use it. In hindsight, I’m glad we caved, but I was furious at the time that my mother had given me all the weirdest names she could gather up, but was opposed to me naming her grandson after a fish. Nonetheless, Oliver grew into a boy who feeds more fish every day than the owner of a small pet store.

The scary thing about names is that they really are so full of meaning and predestination. It’s one reason people play it safe with classic names. Your kid probably won’t hate you for naming him John or Elizabeth.

These days, I’m surrounded in the high school where I work by Kaylees, Madisons, Mikaylas, Mackenzies, Logans (for boys and girls), Bradens, Jaydens, Caydens, Sydneys, Alexises, and so on. I have yet to encounter a teen in this generation named Stacey or Donna.

It’s hard to escape the generational appeal of names. Just when you think you have chosen one that is unique but appealing, you hear of someone else who is thinking of giving their child the same name. This is going to happen, so don’t bother getting defensive.

The last name that got away from me was India Eleanor. I loved it for a daughter, but my husband thought it was too melodramatic, too faux exotic when we’re not exotic. We’re not even Eastern European.

All you can do with these names that you wanted for yourself and your children is give them to pets and fictional characters. Some would say writing fiction is a waste of time when you’ll never be the next Shirley Jackson, but if that’s the case, then there’s a lot less risk in naming a fictional character than having another baby.


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