I have a confession to make. Yesterday, when choosing a name for our new orange kitten, my daughter and I Googled “cute names for orange kittens.” Then, we chose from the list yielded by the search. I am not proud to admit that we agreed on the name of Pekoe, as in orange Pekoe tea, because we thought “it sounded cute.” This, in spite of the fact that orange pekoe tea isn’t even orange, it’s black, according to my literary and literal-minded neighbor Betsey Maupin. Betsey wanted me to name him Mr. Bates, after the Downton Abbey valet. I rejected Betsey’s suggestion for fear that someone might address an envelope to “Master Bates” before he reaches maturity, making him subject to teasing by other adolescent felines. But I digress.
What is shocking—SHOCKING—about the haphazard naming of Pekoe is that my husband and I are insufferable name snobs. This doesn’t mean that we aspire to hang with the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers (although we did do some almost quasi-hanging with Senator Jay Rockefeller in our former professional lives in West Virginia. Although I suspect that Rockefellers and Astors don’t really ‘hang.’ Perhaps they cavort. But I digress again). No, our name snobbery is manifested in the choosing of first names (or ‘Christian names’ as my homey J-Rock probably refers to them). Meaning, give your child a first name with some significance, don’t just choose it from a dumb baby names book you threw into your cart at Safeway. When your child asks how he got his name, you don’t want your answer to begin with, “So me and your dad was in the checkout line, see…”
It’s ironic that I, nee Betsy Jane Rogers, have become a name snob. In fact, my mother chose my name, not for Betsy Ross or Jane Eyre, but because she just liked how it rolled off her tongue in October, 1966. It was between “Betsy Jane” and “Betsy Jill.” Jane won out. My cousin, born three months before me, was “Wendy Sue,” and the cousin before that was “Vicki Jean.” My mother and aunts had evidently consulted the Cutie Pie Book of Naming, choosing from the chapter titled “Name your child THIS if you want her to grow up to bake cherry pies and fetch her husband’s slippers.” I was all too happy to drop the Jane when I married my carefully-named husband, Paul von Hartz Owens, who is the progeny of two unabashed name snobs, Joan and Gwinn Owens. I guess you could say I am a name snob by marriage.
Paul’s first name was chosen for Gwinn’s two closest friends, and von Hartz is his grandmother’s maiden name. It’s doubly ironic, actually, that my husband remains a name snob, after the grief his middle name has caused him over the years. In German, ‘von’ is a royal surname prefix that means “from the line of.” So, Paul’s ancestors way, way back were from the family line of Hartzes, whoever they were (royal purveyors of flea collars?). My husband has zero use for royalty, and even less for his middle initial, which no one can really pinpoint. Is it lower case v? Upper case H? The combined vH? Standardized forms with a single square for middle initial make him seethe with resentment. He has chosen to leave it out of his journalistic byline completely.
Not only were Paul and his three siblings endowed with names of studied family significance, but this religious rule, with a couple notable exceptions, even extended to the naming of pets and cars. Yes, cars. In the 70s, Gwinn’s red Chevy Impala was named “Well Red.” As you might surmise, he was. When I came on the scene in the late 80s Joan drove a crappy Aries K-Car, elevated by its Latin name of Festina Lente (look it up.) Cats were dubbed “Emily” and “Heathcliff” for Gwinn’s favorite book, Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Once, however, the family acquired a small fluffy kitten, which the young Owens children insisted on calling “Little Fuzz.” This troubled my father-in-law, causing him to invent an elaborate story about the ‘real’ origin of the name Little Fuzz. In fact, decades later, long after the demise of said feline, when the topic of Little Fuzz arose, Gwinn would insist that the moniker came from their indecision over whether the furball would bear the appellation of Castor or Pollux, the mythological twin brothers of Helen of Troy. Gwinn would say “we debated…should we name him Castor or Pollux? C or P? COP? In the CB radio community, another name for a cop is ‘the fuzz.’ Little Fuzz it is!!” This would elicit aerobic eye-rolling on the part of my husband. When I first met Gwinn, he sheepishly introduced me to his dog Mandy. “She came from the pound, you see, so she was already named.” Gwinn would have just as likely have named his mastiff Mr. Barksalot.
In our married life, Paul and I have endeavored to carry on the rich tradition of meaningful name selection. In other words, I signed a pre-nup that there would never be a Brittnee Dakotah Owens. Predictably, when we became parents we named our daughter Margaret Joan for her two grandmothers. When we were awaiting the arrival of our son, still not knowing the sex, we discussed girl names. I suggested the idea of “Mary Laura,” since Paul’s sister is named Laura. Paul rejected the idea. “Who the heck is Mary?” he asked. My answer of “Uh, only the Virgin Mother of God” failed to satisfy his ‘the name must have direct personal relevance’ imperative. Luckily, Jack (whom we had agreed would be named for my father) came along, rendering the discussion of the Mary moniker moot.
Knowing this history makes the fact that Paul acquiesced to our arbitrary naming of Pekoe all the more remarkable. But it does leave me wondering if, decades from now, when we discuss fond memories of Pekoe, my husband will, like his father before him, invent some elaborate and apocryphal story about how the kitten got his name. “Oh yes, darling Pekoe,” he might explain to Jack’s new bride, “named for the Ancient Chinese philosopher who delighted children with his cat-like whiskers.” Jack will look back at me, roll his eyes, and Little Fuzz will purr down from Heaven.