So for some reason the other day it occurred to me that all the classic British mystery novelists have old-fashioned names – Agatha (Christie), Dorothy (Sayers), Margery (Allingham), Josephine Tey (whose real name was Elizabeth McKintosh). With the exception of Josephine’s real name, all these names, once popular, have passed out of fashion and are now miles down the list of names parents give their daughters. Dorothy and Margery have given way to Madison and Chloe, and Agatha has never been all that popular, even in the 20s and 30s when Mrs. Christie burst on the literary scene.
The lists of the most popular girl-baby names of the last several years reveal that several old-fashioned names have really roared back to prominence, notably Emma, Sophia, Olivia (which is endlessly amusing to my mother-in-law), and Isabella. Some traditional names, like Emily, Katherine, Abigail and Grace, have never really gone out of style, although they are occasionally subject to creative spelling. (I know an Emmalee and a few Kathryns…can Abbagayle or Grayce be far behind?) But there are some old-fashioned names that are gone, and aren’t likely to come back…Dorothy. Mildred. Bertha. Gloria. Gladys. (Gladys is always the awkward, adenoidal housemaid-in-training in Aunt Agatha’s books.)
I’ve been thinking about names lately because I’ve been helping my daughter with a school project on immigration. She had to make a poster and give a short presentation on her ancestors, where they came from, and how and approximately when they came to the U.S. This is a complicated tale for my daughters’ ancestors, some of whom journeyed here soon after the Mayflower and some of whom were processed through Ellis Island in 1902. This latter family left small-town Hungary and the decaying reign of Franz Josef to start a new life in the New World. These were my great-grandparents, then teenagers, and their parents. They didn’t come over on the same ship, but both arrived on steamers from Hamburg, Germany. Later they married and had three children, one of whom was my grandmother.
My great-grandmother and I have always had some sort of special link, because I am her namesake. And yes, it’s one of those old-fashioned names that will likely never again become popular. (Hint: it’s Biblical, and also the name of our first First Lady.) I only met her once, when she was 90-something and I was 3 or 4, and the story goes that I was none to pleased to meet the strange and very old lady. But I’ve grown to like her more as I got older, even though she wasn’t around anymore, through family stories that have been passed down from my dad, and my grandmother, and my grandfather, who was her son-in-law. She was reportedly a very strong-willed and emotional woman, demanding of her husband and yet beloved by him as well.
My favorite story about my great-grandmother involves her giving birth to her first child during a huge blizzard in New York City in January 1912. It was clear from the beginning that the baby would not survive, and she telephoned the Catholic priest (they were staunch Magyar Catholics) to come and give the child the last rites. The priest, not wanting to brave the weather, said the child was born without sin and he would visit in the next few days. This was not the answer my great-grandmother wanted to hear. She then called the local Presbyterian minister, who came immediately and stayed (and prayed) with her when the baby died. A few days later, the priest finally showed up. When my namesake heard him talking to my great-grandfather in the next room, she yelled to her husband (in Hungarian), “Is that son-of-a-b*tch priest here? Tell him to piss off!” After that they attended the Presbyterian church. Classic.
The name my great-grandmother and I share was a bane to me all through my childhood and adolescence. Almost no girls were given that name in the early 70s – I went to school surrounded by Jennifers and Erins and Karens and Melissas. People often mistook my name for Marcia or Margaret. (I still get called “Marcia” at least a few times a year, and mentally remember my childhood response, “I am not a Brady!”)
Once, in third or fourth grade, the office secretary came on the intercom at my school and asked me to come to the office. There was no other student with my name among the other 300 kids at school. My teacher and I looked at each other; she shrugged and sent me off. I plodded down the hall, wondering what I’d done wrong. As it turned out, nothing – there was a new office assistant with the same name and they were looking for her. But it did drive home the singularity – and isolation? – of my old-fashioned name.
In high school I imagined my name “sounded like a housekeeper, or the fat lady at the circus,” and wished for a more glamorous name like Marina or Marissa. A substitute gym teacher once called me “Marty,” and the look I gave her might have set her on fire. And then at some point, I made peace with my name. It was Biblical; it was sweet. There were a number of inspiring women with the same name (just look at the pictures sprinkled throughout this post). It figured in some great pop songs, including a song from my ancestress’s native land. It was uncommon, but not “out there.” People remembered it, even if they didn’t remember me or my personality, which was (and is) nowhere near as fiery as my great-grandmother’s. The same could be said for Agatha, or Margery, or Dorothy. And when we named our daughter, my husband and I sought just such a name for her, something out of the ordinary but instantly recognizable. And so the story continues.