When our son was born, my husband and I named him John Findlay in the Southern tradition of honoring our family members. The more difficult choice was what to call him.
When we announced to our New York friends that he would be John they asked, “And what will you call him?”
Others skipped that question, rushing to, “You can call him Finn!”
Back home in our brownstone, we received gifts addressed to John-Findlay.
Emails from colleagues pinged in throughout my maternity leave. “How’s Jack?”
During the holidays, 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 person figured they misheard me, saying “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.
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,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. 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 syllables like my Southern relatives might have done.
He let out a cry.
Would this new child ever identify with this age-old word?
We persisted, and made progress with the help of Johns who came before him. The bathing baby was John the Baptist. The bouncing baby was John Wayne. Johnny Walker enjoyed strolls in Central Park and the baby who slept through the night at one month was as generous as John D. Rockefeller.
Soon there emerged unique versions of John that were unlike others. 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.
In fact, the more people who questioned his name, the prouder I became of it. “John,” I announced a little louder, so that no one could think it was “Sean.”
Recently, I warmed up some leftover milk that daycare had sent home. Then I realized the bottle John 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 with another name. It was like a peek down the road not traveled.
I snatched the bottle with John’s would-have-been name and chucked it in the sink. While John went berserk over his stolen lunch, I warmed up a new bottle as fast as I could. “John, John, John,” I purred. 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 started to savor my family’s own story with this storied name.
Caroline Hamilton has a BA from UNC Chapel Hill and an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. A version of this article originally appeared on southernliving.com.