Dustin and I thoughtfully chose each of our children’s names, looking to relatives and surnames for inspiration. Our firstborn, Ford, is actually named Henry (after his dad and great-grandfather) Rutherford (my maiden name) Smiley. The nickname “Ford” comes from Rutherford and is a nod to Dustin’s grandfather Henry, who was a Ford mechanic on Main Street in Bangor, and my dad, Lindell (also our youngest son’s name), who, when I was a teenager, might have been more upset if I bought a Chevrolet than if I came home with a tattoo on my face.
Dustin and I have never doubted our choice of Ford’s name. So it came as a surprise last week when Ford said, quite vehemently, that he hates his name. I think his exact words were, “I’d rather be named anything else in the whole wide world.”
“But your name is built Ford tough,” I said, which wasn’t helpful at all. “Ford didn’t take the bailout money, either!”
The ensuing conversation with Ford about how we chose “Henry Rutherford” led to a discussion about family names and then family trees. This interested Ford, who thinks graphs and correlations are entertainment. He decided to make his family tree.
First he wrote down all of his aunts’, uncles’ and cousins’ names. That was the easy part. He drew lines from those names to boxes where he filled in his grandparents’ names. I was mostly cooking dinner while Ford did this and only half paying attention, until he asked me to help with his great-grandparents’ names.
Half of these were my grandparents, as much a part of my life as Ford’s grandparents are to him now. Now all but one of them is gone. In fact, Dustin and I had seven of eight grandparents at our wedding in 1999. Four of them lived long enough to meet Ford. Three met Owen. And only two have known Lindell. Today, my grandmother Doris (her last name, Thompson, is Owen’s middle name) is the only grandparent Dustin and I have left.
Doris has been like a second mother to me, and I lived with her and my grandfather Big Jack in Birmingham, Ala., when I was in school. Big Jack was a Civil War buff; his idol was Robert E. Lee. He already had been gone six years when I had Lindell, but when Dustin called Doris at 11 o’clock that night to tell her the name (Lindell Grant Smiley) we had chosen for our third child, Doris erroneously believed that he had said “General Grant Smiley.”
The next morning, Doris called my brother Will and said, “I laid awake all night thinking of poor Jack, that ol’ bird, turning over in his grave at the nerve of his granddaughter naming her son General Grant. Could you ever imagine such a thing?”
Now it was Doris, my only living connection to the past, that Ford wanted to call to get the names of his great-great-grandparents. Dustin and I looked at each other and grinned. “You sure you’re ready for this, Ford?” Dustin said while I dialed the number. (Dustin knows Doris almost as well as I do.) “Do you have lots of paper and a pen ready?”
Naturally, I could hear Doris’ loud, familiar voice with a Southern twang coming through the receiver. There were several fun moments in the beginning where Doris thought Ford had said he was making a “family treat,” and Ford said, “Tree! Tree!” as loud and as slow as someone talking to a foreigner. Once that was cleared up, Ford said again, “Can you help me with the names of my great-great-grandparents?”
“Oh, honey, well, I don’t know what good I’ll be,” Doris said. “I can try, but Lord have mercy it’s been a long time, and well, I hope I can help you.” There was a brief pause. Doris drew in her breath. Then she said, “So! Let’s get started.”
What followed was a half-hour of Ford patiently listening and occasionally offering a “wow,” “uh-huh” or “mhmm.” I heard Doris tell him about her sister, who once swallowed a safety pin; her mother-in-law, who cried like a grieving widow at Doris’ wedding; and her grandfather who died saving a carload of people from a train crash.
When Doris was finished, Ford said, “Well, I have learned a lot, Doris.”
“I hope you will call me again, dear,” she said.
“I might not call again real soon,” Ford said. “But I will call again. This is a lot to think about.”
After Ford hung up the phone, he said, “It’s sad that someday my kids won’t know Doris and maybe not some of my grandparents, too.”
When I tucked Ford into his bed later that night, I winked as I said “Henry Rutherford” aloud. He turned up his nose for a moment, but his twinkling eyes could not hide his newfound pride in his family and, thereby, his name.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.