What’s in a Namesake?

All eyes were on our baby to lighten the burden of our grief

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(Image by Christopher Noxon)

“How about Henry?”

“Too popular.”

“Hugo?”

“It reminds me of Hugo Chavez. What about Hadley?”

“Ugh, it sounds like a line of outdoor furniture from Maine. Here, look at the list, what’s wrong with these: Haim? Hiroshi? Hardeep? Huxford?” I turned to my wife with a cautious smile and a deep Japanese bow. “How about that, Hiroshi Sax?”

We were deep into the second trimester of pregnancy when the question of naming our unborn child of undetermined sex really began gathering steam. Other friends who were pregnant at the same time had already locked down their top three choices, like an NBA team securing draft picks, while we were floating along towards B-Day without so much as a single decent option. Our situation wasn’t that different from many other expectant couples, but we both felt the added pressure of legacy, which made the search both easier and vastly more complicated.

My wife’s father Howard had passed away two years earlier. He was sick at our wedding and died, at age 59, a week before our first anniversary. Howard was a larger-than-life figure: an exceedingly kind and generous man, an eccentric hippie who greeted strangers with hugs and lectures on alternate consciousness. His death was the first outside of elderly grandparents in both of our immediate families, and now, with his inaugural grandchild growing inside my wife, the expectations our baby had to fill were substantial.

“Are you in there, Howie?” my sister-in-law asked into my wife’s belly, the first time she came over after hearing the news. Her brother, who had become more religious since his father’s death, referred to the baby as the neshama, Hebrew for soul. There was talk of the baby healing the family’s wounds, of the circle of life looping around, and even a few open suggestions that the baby was Howard’s reincarnation. Before our fetus even developed bones, it was tasked with delivering my relatives from the burden of their grief.

At first, we thought the task of honoring Howard would make naming the baby easier. After all, we had automatically winnowed down our potential choices from 26 letters to one, streamlining the process and saving months of fruitless list making. But as we flipped through the baby name books and websites, and clicked on the custom name-picking software my wife had bought, we soon realized that honoring Howard in the Jewish tradition of naming a baby after a deceased loved one was going to be trickier than we thought.

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Howard’s photo displayed inside his granddaughter’s crib. (David Sax)

H was not an easy letter for names. It offers great options if you are Indian or Japanese, but for two contemporary Jews, it offers a choice between the ultra-biblical (Hadassah, Hepzibah, Hulda) or new-aged bubbly (Happy, Harmony, Holiday). We’d toss these names out into the air, jokingly addressing the baby with each one, asking it to kick if it liked Hadley or stay silent if it objected to being called Helga. After a month of this, we realized we were getting nowhere.

During those long, frustrating nights, as we circled round and round the same selections, I wished we were part of a culture where the naming process was automatic, like Anglo Saxons (“Howard Jr. is off playing cricket, can I take a message?”). We toyed with the idea of just coming out and naming the baby Howard if he was a boy, but then my wife realized a second later that calling her father’s name out to someone suckling at her breast, or crapping on her floor, was going to make life unreasonably awkward.

We moved away from H, vowing instead to honor Howard with a middle name (easy for a boy, undetermined for a girl). It was liberating. We began focusing on names we wanted, names that would reflect who he was, rather than what he was called. Eventually, my wife found one she liked: Noa. She was a biblical character who is regarded as one of the first feminists, and Howard had always insisted that his daughters get equal treatment and opportunity in this world, especially in their religion. Her middle name would be a riff on Howard’s Hebrew name.

Luckily the baby was a girl. Because if we had a boy, he probably would have been called Hiroshi.

And when little Noa came out, wriggling and screaming, my wife’s family did indeed seem to find some sort of peace with their loss. The baby brought them immense joy, but all the talk of reincarnation, of her embodying Howard’s soul, of Noa acting as his living legacy quickly faded away. She was her own person they realized, descended from Howard and hopefully embodying his best qualities, but she would grow into her name, just as she grew into herself.

*As I was writing this story, Princess Kate Middleton gave birth to her royal son. “It’s a boy!” I yelled downstairs to my wife, who was awaiting the news. “That’s good,” she said. “At least they don’t have to name it Diana.”

David Sax is a writer and journalist in Toronto, Canada. He writes for publications such as The New York Times, and Bloomberg Businessweek, and his latest book, “The Tastemakers,” about the business of food trends, will be published in 2014 by Public Affairs.  He is currently knee-deep in diapers and colic, thanks to the namesake mentioned above.

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