Let’s say you have an incredibly sweet 3-year-old girl named Molly, but you never wanted to name her Molly. Never, ever, ever.
There’s a lot to a name, like the fact that Molly was a roommate of mine in San Francisco, an acquaintance of my best friend, who I liked okay but it was her name not my future daughter’s. No, not my girl. When I was four months pregnant and told my mother we were thinking of naming our daughter Molly, she said, “That sounds like an Irish washerwoman.” Another family member berated me as I was recovering in the hospital from my C-section for my admission that we might, after all, go with Molly, telling me it was a horrible name, evoking drippy hippy girls in the seventies who wore long, ugly skirts.
Maybe some names have magnetic attractions to some families. Molly seems to send mine (the family I grew up with, that is) running. The truth is, my family’s criticisms gave voice to my own reservations. I’ve never cottoned to the name Molly. Names sing to you or they don’t. Though it rhymes with a lot, and rhymes so much you could easily compose a jingle, the rhyme is simpy, sugery sweet: Dolly, Polly, Golly.
A name like Leslie doesn’t sing and, Elvis Presley and Nestle aside, doesn’t rhyme, which is why you never hear a Leslie love song. But I think Leslie has some strength to it, a unisexual power. There’s something to having a mannish name that can still be beautiful. Think Leslie Caron. Still, in the end, what I’d give for a name that sings, even a little.
My middle name, now that sings. Moira. No, not Moy-ra, but Mor-a. I love that name. It’s a leftover name, that middle name of mine. But when have I ever used it? Never. Middle names are a pity, really. Rarely uttered except to clarify bureaucratic pickles or criminal news stories. In my early thirties, I thought of changing my name, thinking I could suddenly become someone else entirely: A romantic Moira. All windswept hair, all Wuthering Heights. Moira. Now there’s a girl of character and wind-swept-hairness.
I know three women who have changed their name and all for the better: Julie Anne Guthrie became Julian. Susan Ellis became Clare Ellis (she is such a Clare…beautiful, smart, clear…). And my force-of-nature fantastic sister-in-law at age 60 went from Jeri to Suzanna when she moved to Italy. Well, why not? If you can change your sex, what’s the big deal about forsaking a name you’d rather slough off. Why go through life as Melvin, Hymen, Eunice?
But in the end, I’m not so bold to lay claim to a new name. When I told Steve my Moira fantasy, he thought it pretentious to change one’s name so late in life. (Ah, but 33 now seems so young.) As for regifting it to my daughter, Steve, in the Jewish tradition, believes it unseemly to name a living person after someone who is still living. (Thus, no Martin Finkelstein, III.) According to Jewish teachings, you might as well wish someone dead. I get a lot about Judaism and think it far superior to Catholicism, the religion I grew up with. Alas, I let go of that dream.
An organic farmer who sold strawberries at our farmers’ market asked me when I was pregnant what I was going to name my daughter. After having gotten such severe critiques, and being afraid of this woman anyway — who at any turn, is judgemental and mean — I demurred. “I’ve decided not to tell anyone what I’m thinking of naming her. People always have something to say about it.” She pressed and pressed. “Oh come on. Just tell me. I won’t say anything.”
Molly.” God. I have no backbone.
“Don’t name her Molly! With a name like Molly, she could never become a lawyer.”
“I’m not sure I want my daughter to become a lawyer.”
“What’s wrong with lawyers?”
I’d backed myself into a corner and honestly, I hated defending myself, and my unborn daughter, against Molly detractors, even if I didn’t want it myself. I kept trying it out: Molly, Molly, Molly and kept recoiling. So why did I give in to Steve’s top choice? In short, I so wanted a second child that when it happened, against all odds at age 42, I decided that in the end, I’d let Steve have the name since I got my wish.
I tried, I tried with other names. I was working at BabyCenter at the time and would go through the site’s name finders. Hundreds of names I’d scroll through, cherry picking my favorites that I’d email names to Steve throughout the work day. Unusual names: Zelda, Eliza, Emelia, Stella, Sadie, Mia, Kelsey, Olive, Hazel; strong names: Hayden. September; gender neutral names: Chandler, August. At last Steve and I found one we both loved: Ruby, only to realize that Ruby Fox could only be the name of a stripper.
Out too were names of women Steve has dated, names I love like Irene (Molly’s middle name and my grandmother’s name) and Julia.
My baby X was born and after days of stalling in the hospital, with the birth certificate woman knocking on our door every day, we had narrowed it down to “Isabel, Madeline, and Molly.” Sam, my then 8 year old said, “Come on, Mom, she’s Molly and you know it.” I didn’t but I couldn’t resist his pleas. I wanted him to feel invested in this interloper as much as I wanted Steve to embrace the reality of this fourth person in our family. Okay, in my Vicadin weariness I said, Molly it is. “Good thing you chose Molly,” said the birth certificate woman. “I’ve already issued three certificates for Isabel this morning.”
Okay, so that’s a plous. There aren’t many other Mollys around, unless you run with the pack. Yell “Molly” at a dog park and a tail wager will come running.
For months I resisted the name. I called my baby Moll, Molls, sweetie pie, pumpkin, love. But I hated saying “Molly.” It didn’t feel right. Never felt like her name to me. Postpartum, when I was leaving all of our big wooden furniture on the sidewalk (Has anyone else out there had postpartum furniture syndrome? Please let me know!) because a console a kitchen set set off a round of inexplicable sobbing, I was also plotting a name change.
For a while I settled on Quinn. Steve liked Quinn. Yes, Quinn is good. “There’s Miss Molly,” said Pat, one of my friends at the farmers’ market whose only fault, that I can see, is that upon seeing Molly , he always says, “Good golly Miss Molly!” (Remember, now, that’s a song about a hooker, “You sure like to ball.” And then there’s that book about a prostitute, Moll Flanders).
“I’m thinking of changing her name to Quinn,” I say, in part to test the waters, in part, defiance. Now he can never belt out a song in response to her name. (Oh, how I feel for the Allisons, who have heard, ad naseum, how this world is killing them;the Mandys, who must curse Barry Mantilow daily.) “Ah, the mighty Quinn!” he roared. Thanks, Pat.
But, still, I was determined to make a change. This urge was spurred on by Molly’s first babysitter. One day, hesitantly, guiltily, I said to Amancy, “Can I tell you something so weird? I don’t like Molly’s name and am thinking of changing it.” Amancy stared at me and I interpreted her look, mistakenly, as one that said, “You are a terrible woman who doesn’t love your daughter.” Because not to love a name, does that mean you love the name-holder less?
Strange, sometimes, to whom we confess. Because my confessor became my conspirator. Amancy went on to tell me the story about her five-year-old son Zavian. “Zavian used to be named Oscar,” she said. “I hate the name Oscar, but Frank wanted to name him after two of his relatives.” She went along with it until one day at church, when Zavian was two, the preacher gave a sermon about the meaning of names. How important their legacy, how important the meaning for the name bearer. After the sermon Amancy, who is as strong as she is sweet, announced to Frank, “We are changing Oscar’s name.”
After all, she pointed out, their son may have been named after two Oscars, but both had criminal records. So amidst and despite plenty of neighbor and family clucking, Amancy announced to the world that from that day forward, their son would be Zavian, the name she wanted all along. She got her son’s papers changed and it was a done deal.
That did it for me. I would change our daughter’s name. I went with Molly’s godmother Paula to the birth certificate window at San Francisco’s City Hall. I was going to do it. Give her Moira. Her name would be Molly Moira Irene Fox. Then, when she learned to dislike sympy, sweet, washerwoman Molly as much as I did, she could assume one of her other names. After waiting 45 minutes in line, I got to the window and the woman said, “Oh, no darling. To change a name you have to go through a process.”
A process? The process meant advertising in a local paper that you were changing this person’s name. It also meant filling out a lot of paperwork and appearing in court. It also meant getting Steve’s signature and approval.
Steve is a lovely man and if I crowed enough, I imagine he would have gone along with me. Not without some resentment, I’m sure, because after all we did name Molly after his beloved, sweet grandmother. (But again, I argue, that’s precisely it. Molly Brown aside, everyone expects Molly to be sweet, right?) No, I didn’t go through the process. I felt a heel forcing Steve to give up a name he loved. But in an act of wimpy subversiveness, I got her a silver baby cup that reads, “Molly Moira Irene Fox.” At least she has the cup.
When they aren’t saying, “Good Golly, Miss Molly!” or “I know a dog named Molly,” people who meet her often say, “She looks like a Molly.” Red hair. Boingy curls. Yes, she does. To her, she is Molly. She can write her name now. This is her identity. Though the girl is in my heart, the name still, still after all these days of saying the name while I hold my daughter, sounds wrong.
Here comes the irrational part. (But what part of having children is rational? It’s all craziness and desire and blind love and fierce attachment.) Steve’s sister Berryl, was named after their dead brother Barry. So was Steve, whose legal documents name him as Steven-Barry, a name he hates so much he dropped “-Barry” in all but legal documents. So for their entire life they carry around this baby’s name, a baby who died mysteriously at around three days old in the hospital. Thanks to their parent’s particular brand of craziness, Berryl and Steve would get presents from their dead brother. “Love Barry,” the gift tags read.
Oh, we’re haunted by these ghosts. These names that carry such weight for some and sing to others (the others being the lovers of dead babies, the lovers of tough but lovable criminals, the lovers of grandmothers who baked heavenly cakes) What to do for those who feel the name has hit the wrong note?
Irrationally, wrongly I’m sure, I associate ovarian cancer, which runs in Steve’s family, with grandmother Molly, a woman I’ve never met who died of it and then passed it to her granddaughter Berryl, who died this year of it at age 50. Grandmother Molly may have also passed this on to Steve, who may — we won’t know until he and Molly take the test — may have passed it to our little Molly. Give her another name and we might give her another destiny. She could be a lawyer. She doesn’t have to be sweet and bake cakes. She could avoid a mid-life death sentence and live until 90.
Molly is three now. I was carrying her down the stairs for hot chocolate this morning. She said, “You and Dad got married because you’re friends.” Yes, I told her, your Dad and I are best friends. We love each other so much, “so much that we got married and wanted to have two children.”
“Yes, two children! Sam and Molly,” said Molly Moira Irene Fox. “Right?”