Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - March 1, 2024

What's in a name?

Brother Dave recently gave me a stack of photos from one of mom's albums. A picture that caught my eye was from her high school reunion in 2010 or 2011. She and a woman were seated together, and mom's description on a blue Post-it note read: "Edla with Gloria (Johnson) whom I took care of when she was four in Dwight."

Mom grew up on a farm in Morris County, Kansas. When she went to high school in Dwight, she boarded during the week with the Johnson family and would babysit their daughter Gloria. Mom loved her so much and was so taken with her name that she gave it to me.

I had never met or spoken with the person responsible for my name, so I asked husband Art to do a bit of sleuthing to see if he could find her phone number. He did, and I called.

An answering machine came on and I began to explain who I was. But when I mentioned "Edla," Gloria, who will be 90 this year, picked up the phone. She said as soon as she heard mom's name, she wanted to talk to me. We chatted for about 15 minutes about mom, Dwight, and her family. She said her granddaughter Ada has her middle name Marlene and her grandson's first name is Johnson - a nod to her maiden name.

Today, many expectant parents look at lists to get ideas for their babies' names, but I sort of like mine and others, which have a more personal connection.

When Art was at the eye doctor a number of years ago, the assistant who did the preliminary work introduced herself as Scarlett. "As from 'Gone with the Wind?'" Art asked. She rolled her eyes and said her mother was a huge fan of the movie. Then she paused and asked, "Want to guess my brother's name?" She nodded a sort of "of course" yes, when he guessed Rhett.

I have often told the story behind my great-uncle's name. The Scandinavians had long used the patronymic naming system, where a man adds the word "son" to his father's first name to form his last name. So Sven, the son of Lars, becomes Sven Larson or Larsson if you want to be picky. A daughter added "dotter" instead. Lars' daughter Maria then became Maria Larsdotter.

But this method wasn't accepted in the United States, where an unchanging surname or family name was the rule. So whatever last names immigrants had when they arrived were fixed. The Mariadahl area of Kansas, about 25 miles north of Manhattan, became awash with Johnsons as a result. My great-uncle Richard John Johnson said it was so confusing when he went into the seminary that he put his first name at the end and became John Johnson Richard, although he usually went by J. J. Richard.

It's still fairly common to name boys for some older member of the family. My dad was named Edgar Merl after his uncle John Edgar and his cousin Merl. And Art's dad was named for his grandfather Thomas. The naming of girls after family members isn't as common today as it once was, although I do have a friend named Nina, after her mother who is also named Nina. They use Nina Sr. and Nina Jr. to avoid confusion.

Another common practice was to name a later child the same as an older child who had died. It was looked on as a form of remembrance, whereas now we might see it as a bit creepy.

One thing an elementary teacher often struggles with is motivating students. One day we were asked to talk a bit about genealogy at a local school. When Art started explaining the meanings of various surnames, suddenly there were as many hands in the air as if he had asked who wanted to go to recess.

When Art adopted daughter Mariya, I didn't want her to lose my middle name Beth or the connection to the Johanning family. "No problem! We'll just add Vaughan on the end," he said. Coming from a family with so many Germans with multiple names, it wasn't surprising he thought of it. But would Mariya feel odd that she had four names while classmates had three?

It turns out she loved the idea, but daughter Katie once asked why she didn't also have four names. She was pleased, though, when she learned that her middle name, Joanna, was a combination of her two grandmothers' middle names.

Of course, there are some odd older names that aren't heard much now:

Dorcas - One was interviewed on an NPR segment recently.
Zenas - He was our friend Jos grandfather.
Thirza - She was a friend of Art's mother Donna.
Benannie - I kid you not! Father was Ben; mother was Annie. Connect the dots!
Lutie: One of my distant relatives

Sometimes for the full effect, you need both names. Art is so amused by Lutie Gilfillan that every now and then, he'll declare, "Well, I'll be a Lutie Gilfillan!" instead of, "Well, I'll be darned!"

So whenever I am introduced to people and hear their names, I often wonder "What's in those names?" ... and then think, "hopefully a little story!"

Left-top: mom (left) reunites with the woman who gave me my name. Left-bottom: Lutie (Gilfillan) Watson. Middle: Reverend J. J. Richard formerly Richard John Johnson. Right: Gloria at about the age when mom was her babysitter.

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