Caroline Hamilton is a graduate of UNC Chapel Hill and has her MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. After a decade in New York, Hamilton and her husband, Eric, are moving back to North Carolina to give their son a Southern childhood.
When our son was born, my husband and I gave him the first and middle names John Findlay in the Southern tradition of honoring our family members. The more difficult choice was what to call him.
We liked the nickname Jack, but it was creeping up the baby-name charts. Findlay was cute to my ear, but sounded feminine to my husband. We tried on “Finn” but had already met two Atticuses and suspected a literary name fad.
But when we announced to our New York friends that he would be John—plain and simple—they asked, “And what will you call him?”
Others skipped the question entirely, rushing to, “That’s a fabulous middle name, you can call him Finn!”
A nurse in the recovery room in Mount Sinai Hospital said, “John is a great ‘70’s name that you don’t hear anymore.”
Back home in our brownstone, we received gifts addressed to John-Findlay.
Emails from colleagues pinged in throughout my maternity leave. “How’s Jack?”
The holidays rolled around, and our mailbox filled with season’s greetings to JFL.
Johnny and John-O were inoffensive monikers adapted by those who just couldn’t stop at “n”. And some inquired if John was a nickname for Jonathan.
More than one store clerk figured they misheard me, following up with “I’m sorry?”
We had known that the southern tradition of repeating ourselves–through our comfort food, our idioms, and our family names–was at odds with the rest of the world’s desire to be unique. But we hadn’t expected this four-letter-word to stop conversations.
I sought the company of other name-needled mothers on the Internet. “I’ve named my daughter Maeve,” one anxious mom wrote. “My mother-in-law pretends to not know how to pronounce it. She calls her Mauve. Is it too late to change her name?”
Naming was hard enough without the public’s response; even behind closed doors I called my son’s name tentatively. Like making the first footprint in a field of snow, or packaging fresh produce in plastic, the act of naming our son came with an unexpected jab of loss. A named thing, I realized, as I held the baby skin to skin and looked into his dolphin colored eyes, could never be as wild and limitless as an unnamed thing. Titling him seemed to ever so slightly depreciate him. Not to mention his total lack of consent. Choosing a classic name, I wanted to believe, was a way of standing on the edge of his life’s canvas and handing him the paintbrush.
“Hello, John,” I whispered.
The tiny being looked the other way.
I bounced him and said his name again, this time drawing it out into two sing-song syllables like my southern relatives might have done.
He let out a cry.
Had we made a grave mistake? Would this brand new child ever identify with this age-old word? It felt a little silly to call this gurgling infant by the name of a bearded disciple. Perhaps there was a reason for the Jack-attacks and Finn-agains of 2015.
We persisted, and made progress with the help of Johns who came before him. The bathing baby was John the Baptist. The talkative baby was John the Revelator. The bouncing baby was John Wayne and the pensive baby John Locke. Johnny Walker enjoyed strolls in Central Park and John, the Baker’s Son, smiled up at us with doughy cheeks. The baby who slept through the night at one month was as generous as John D. Rockefeller.
As weeks went by there emerged unique versions of our John that were unable to be pinned to others—John who carefully regarded us from under his furrowed baby brow; John who chortled wildly when we swung him though the air; John who resigned himself—with a great sigh—to being a baby. In the beginning, his name had lent him attributes, but now his attributes were giving back to the name, so that what we had was an alternate definition for an old word, a familiar sound for a novelty, a living piece of history. Slowly, we shed the silly prefixes and suffixes.
In fact, the more people who questioned his name, the prouder I became of it. “John,” I announced a little more loudly, so that no one could think it was “Sean.”
Recently, I warmed up some leftover milk that daycare had sent home with John. Moments later, I realized the bottle he was blissfully slurping was marked “Finn.” The milk snafu sent my husband into a rant about infectious diseases. But more jarring to me was the sight of my baby holding a bottle stamped with that name. It was like a peek down the road not traveled.
I snatched the bottle with John’s would-have-been name, which now sounded ridiculous to me, and chucked it in the sink. While John went berserk over his stolen lunch, howling and flinging his limbs with ire, I warmed up a new bottle as fast as I could. “John, John, John,” I purred.
I handed him his bottle, soothing him with, “there you go, John.” It felt so right to call him so. He burst into a gummy grin, which he promptly plugged with the milk.
Perhaps there was space for him, after all, in this well-worn word. Watching him peacefully resume his meal—had a maniac ever looked so cuddly? —I opened a can of Aunt’s Ruby peanuts, a Christmas gift from my mom in North Carolina, and started to savor my family’s own story with this storied name.
Want more? Check out our Favorite Timeless Southern Baby Names.