To call you by your name

Since I was a very small, I have reveled in calling a thing by its name. I want to know the name, and even better, to bestow the name. I have always taken stock in the value of names, the meanings behind them, the spellings, the derivations. When I was 10, I checked out every baby name book at the library and read them cover to cover. I wrote long stories about wistful teenaged girls with absurd, meticulously chosen names (Shenandoah Artemis Montgomery was a favorite oft-used heroine). I wanted to know all of my friends’ middle names and reflect on them.

My grandmother has been cleaning out her house, and she has been finding pages upon pages of lists of names I made as a child. Sometimes she sends them to me in the mail. A recent find: On a tattered sheet of notebook paper, when I was perhaps 8 or 9, I have written in pencil three columns of names of dog handlers, dog breeds, and dog names, for an imaginary dog show. Why? I have no idea. It seemed important to me at the time.

When we were small and traveling with Dad on business trips, we listened to books on tape. We were listening to Where the Red Fern Grows, and I was listening with rapt attention. Finally, this boy had saved his entire life’s earnings and bought himself a pair of redbone coonhounds. I was elated. And then the boy said, “I will call them… Big Dan and Little Ann!” My parents said I let out a loud wail from the back of the minivan. They were startled. “WHY?” I lamented. “WHY SUCH TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE NAMES?”

When we first started dating, Guion gave me a compliment that I had never heard before and have thus always remembered. He noticed my predilection for calling out the proper names of animals and plants when we walked. “It is like watching Adam walk through the garden, this need of yours to name everything,” he said, adding, lest I found the remark a reprimand, “and I love that about you.”

So, I’m thinking about names again. (We are on the verge of adopting a trio of bantam chickens, and so I’ve been doing a little research on Indonesian girls’ names.) And that is what I am thinking about now. Why this compulsion for naming?

My best answer is this: A good name gives dignity to its owner. And since I was tiny, I have felt that to be an important virtue.

Whether a plant, a mouse, or a small child, a name gives meaning and worth to that being. This is why farmers don’t name their livestock who will be killed; it is much easier to kill a nameless thing. This is why I’ve never liked the tradition of juniors (for pity’s sake, give the kid his own name). This is why I sigh when someone with a very plain surname gives their kid a very plain first name. This is why we gave our first dog a crazily spelled name (Pyrrha) and why we gave the second one a name in a similar mythological theme (Eden).

Or maybe all of this is just a heads-up to let you know that if and when we have children, be prepared for a weird name. A husband named Guion, after all, means that we have high expectations for ourselves in the odd name department.