Friday, February 21, 2014

Odd thoughts in the middle of the night

Sometimes I wake up thinking about the most inconsequential things. Why? With everything that's going on in the world, why on earth would I wake up wondering how the parents in large families manage to come up with names for their children?

One of the things I do as part of volunteering with the local historical society is dabble a bit in genealogical research. People contact the museum asking for our help in tracking down death certificates, marriage licenses, and other records. Sometimes I'm able to find what they need; sometimes there's nothing. But in any case I have been noticing just how large some of the families were. We've had a couple requests come in for information on one of the local well-known pioneer families, a family that stands out for multiple reasons, but that I find particularly notable for the remarkably good health of the matriarch of the clan. The woman had at least seventeen children who survived into adulthood, or close to it. The matriarch herself was probably in her nineties when she died.

So do I wonder about how she managed that? Good genes, clean living, sheer dumb luck? Do I think about the changes she witnessed over her lifetime, which spanned approximately 1820 to 1910? No. I wake up wondering just how the heck she and her husband came up with names for the kids. The first couple of little barracudas would be easy. As good Catholics, they'd just do the usual Apostles and a Mary or two. But once they hit the 10th or 12th they'd be starting to run out of the better known saints. And by the 17th? I can't see a priest being willing to baptize "Jesus Christ Not Again."

Then again, by the time they hit the 17th, the older kids would be leaving home, so maybe they just started over from the top of the list.

This particular family was so large that the descendants who are several generations away from the original pioneer couple do not realize that their great-great-grandparent was one of 17 siblings. I don't know why that surprises me -- with one exception, I have no idea how many siblings three of my grandparents had, and I actually knew one grandmother -- but it always does. Maybe it's because the family is so well known in local history that it always seems odd that more information didn't get passed down in family folklore after the descendants moved away.

I've always kind of wondered about naming traditions in general. I've known people who were determined that each child have the same first initial, there are others where one particular name seems to get repeated over and over, and of course we've all seen the sorry influence of soap operas, movies, pop stars, and cultural icons. One of my friends was named Mercedes, and, yes, it was the car that was the inspiration. Even better, the family mispronounced it.

I can't get too judgmental, though. Both my kids have names inspired by books, and relatively obscure books at that. My older daughter is still annoyed that I happened to read Zuleika Dobson when I did, and the younger daughter has spent half her life telling people that no, Tamar isn't Biblical, it's a river in a Victoria Holt novel. I keep telling them to count their blessings. I could have been reading Podkayne of Mars when the nurse asked me what to put on the birth certificate.


  1. If I had a son I would name him Lieutenant: that way if he ever joined the military he could jump the chain of command.
    the Ol'Buzzard

  2. Nobody that ever lives that long ever does it by clean livin'. Whenever you read an interview with someone who mad 100, they always talk about how they start each day with a shot of whiskey and smoke their pipe every night or whatever. It's all just dumb luck!

  3. Where I grew up, in a German Catholic community, large families were the norm. Bruno Cey had 144 grandkids at one point and I am sure there were more after that. I went to school with two of his younger kids and one of the older ones, Bill, had 18 kids. His wife missed a year and had twins the next. they were the only family in history to win the Canadian Family Hockey Championship with only brothers, no cousins. I laugh at Ukraine and Russia where 20 first names cover 90% of the population but then I look at my own family tree and talk about lack of imagination. Groan.


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