people ask how you picked your name.
What happened is, the kitten outside was mewling. It was the end of November and cold. I shook a little dish of our cats’ dry food and lured the kitten and the mom cat onto our porch. They both ate and then the mom cat lay down on her side and the kitten nursed. I looked up the phone numbers for spay-and-neuter clinics. But first I said, we should name them.
You named the kitten Ash, after Ash Ketchum from Pokemon. The kitten was a little black-and-white fuzzball with a crusty eye. I named the mom cat Maxine, which is just a name I like. The mom cat sort of belonged to our neighbor, but I wouldn’t say he owned her. He put out food for her, everyone referred to the sleek black cat as his cat, but she didn’t go inside his house. It was more like they claimed each other. His porch was her territory. There are truly feral cats in our neighborhood, there are housecats, and then there are these in-between, self-domesticated cats who will accept pets and treats and mostly hang out on our block but otherwise do as they please.
If I’d heard our neighbor call the mom cat by a name, I would have kept it, but I hadn’t, and the vet would need a name. Not that I could get through to one. PAWS was booked up. ACCT was booked up. Between the pandemic pet boom and social distancing protocols, spay-and-neuter appointments were hard to come by. I sat at my laptop, trying to look up other low-cost vet clinic options.
“Can I pick a name…for me?” you asked.
I told you that you could, that I wasn’t going to change it legally or anything but I could call you something different if you wanted. I tried to probe a little about why – did you not like your name, did you want a name that wasn’t a boy name maybe? No, you just wanted a cooler one.
Being an extremely resourceful mother, I googled “cool boy names.” As expected, I was soon on Nameberry. So we meet again, I thought.
I’d looked at this baby name website, with its curated lists and fervent discussion boards and snarky editorial voice, long before you were conceived. I just think names, and the act of naming, are fascinating. I rejoice when the Social Security Administration drops its baby name index each year and love a good celebrity offspring announcement. Maybe my interest ignited because in childhood I was always picking character names for my fantasy novels (which never progressed much further than those character names and a few introductory pages).
When I got to college, that interest sharpened. I noticed that instead of Ambers and Crystals, I was surrounded by Hannahs and Emilys. Hardly a Travis or a Curtis around, but Bens as far as the eye could see. (If you think I’m exaggerating about how many Crystals I knew growing up, check the stats for popular girl names in North Carolina circa 1984.) It was like I had acquired a new type of vision – I realized that with a first name alone I could see straight into someone’s socioeconomic background. Not always, of course. Plenty of people are named Ann or David or whatever, names so broadly popular that there’s little to glean. But even then, you can surmise that the parents valued tradition, conformity, or carrying on a relative’s name. Some people’s names tell you so much about their parents that it almost feels indecent. Have you ever known a Hollis or a Greer? Very “my parents met at a selective private college” names. Don’t get me started on Marin/Marina. They might as well have named her “We Own A Boat.”
Around this time I read Stanley Lieberson’s A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashions, and Culture Change, which explores naming trends as particularly useful expression of collective preference. Pierre Bourdieu might have cited furniture from antique shops as a way the bourgeoisie distinguish themselves through aesthetic choices, but acquiring antique furniture requires both money and time. Picking a name for a baby doesn’t. Tanya and Tamsin are both free. Because the government records name data, it’s also easy to see trends emerging or falling off. It’s a really interesting book, and one of the too-rare instances of a scholar writing in an accessible style for a general audience. The linked review calls it “a gift to social science; put it up there with Émile Durkheim’s Suicide.” (I haven’t read Durkheim but I like the idea of two major texts that concern birth and death, respectively.)
Lieberson charts how names can become popular within one social group and then spread to another, reducing its appeal to the originators. Generally this takes the form of people with more status rejecting a name once it becomes too diluted by people with less status. For example, American Jews attempting to assimilate in the 1920s chose names popular with WASPs, like Seymour and Sheldon, to such an extent that those names became stereotypically Jewish. WASPs then abandoned them; eventually Jews did too. I have grown to appreciate the relative opacity of my name. Michelle places me as born in the 70s or 80s to middle-class parents (aristocrats don’t name their kids after pop songs), but doesn’t reveal my race or religious upbringing.
So perhaps you can see how picking a name for my actual human child was a big deal to me. Combine that with having to reach a compromise with another person who has just as many pre-existing associations and preferences. A perfectly good moniker can be ruined just because some kid named Thomas made fun of you in middle school. On top of that, your dad and I had to contend with a Latvian surname that’s not exactly melodious to Anglophone ears.
Eventually we found a name we liked well enough, that wasn’t too popular or too unusual, and that sounded OK with you and your dad’s last name. But neither of us were so emotionally attached to it that the idea of you picking a new name felt insulting. We hadn’t even met you when we picked it! How could we know whether it’d suit you long-term?
I think I ended up reading you names off of this list or something similar. I distinctly remember Draco was your first choice (dragons = cool) but I talked you out of it. Hugo had the same cadence with less Harry Potter baggage. You might have also been influenced by a character on Cupcake and Dino: General Services. Anyway, I like it. It’s a fun name but it isn’t overly twee or clever. And it matches your energy. Go go go – that’s what you do.
I wasn’t able to make a vet appointment for Maxine and Ash; PAWS said they would call when they had an opening but it could be weeks. I couldn’t just keep them on the porch that whole time. So we let them go.
We still see the kitten, almost full grown now, dinner guest at multiple porches on the block but suspicious of ours ever since being detained upon it. The mom cat got hit by a car and died. I only know because my neighbors were talking about it one day. “Your little black cat got killed,” Ms. C said to the man who’d been the cat’s non-owner. Claimant? Friend? I still don’t know if he named her but he must have called her something, even if it was just Cat or Kitty.
You seem to have forgotten we named the kitten. We just say, look, the Kitten. I should call up the vet again, set tuna out on our porch, lure Ash into the carrier. I want to just let it go, to be honest. The to-do list is always so, so long and it doesn’t need another item. And I’m not like Shannon, taking in every single stray. Learned my lesson on that by now. But if you name something, you are claiming it in some way, and you’re responsible for what you claim.
Over the weekend, I realized I have to change the book’s title. That’s what got me thinking about names in the first place. I’ll tell you about it later.
Related content: Carole Maso’s short story “The Names”
It is a distinct pleasure to be here on this earth naming with you.