A question on Facebook recently sparked my curiosity regarding names. The question was: Were you named after someone? I answered that question easily because I have always known that my name reflected a generational struggle perpetuated in my family from the early days of my parents’ marriage.
I was named “Susan” after my maternal great-grandmother, Susan Crawford White, and “Elisabeth” after by paternal great-grandmother, Elizabeth Wilson Mosier. Please note the “s” in my name and the “z” in my great-grandmother’s name. Because of that difference in spelling, my paternal grandmother rejected the idea that I was named after her mother. The way she saw it was that my mother’s family had “won” some unnamed contest.
This “contest” reflected the merger of two different cultures – that of my mother’s family and my father’s family. Mimi, my maternal grandmother, came from a Nashville family that had acquired some success. Mimi’s younger brother, Weldon White, was an attorney who later became a Supreme Court justice in Tennessee. Her family highly valued education; she graduated from Hume Fogg High School, and after her husband suffered financial reverses after WWI, she became the stable family breadwinner, teaching first grade in the Nashville public schools for forty years. A pioneer in her own way, she pursued her own college degree and graduated from Peabody College for Teachers at the advanced age of 47. She was a life-long Democrat and supported the Equal rights Amendment when she was in her seventies.
Mam-ma, my dad’s mother, came from a different situation. Her father moved his family repeatedly, always in search of a better situation. Mam-ma left school after 8th grade, in part due to this constant moving. She married at 20 to a young man who had ambition to get off the farm, and my grandfather won a position as a railroad mail clerk, moving the family to Nashville in 1924. Mam-ma was very proud of her home and her homemaking skills; her home was her pride and joy. A product of extreme poverty (her family never owned land and farmed for others), she believed in very traditional family values. My grandfather was a staunch Republican, and she never questioned his positions. However, they supported and were completely proud of my father’s college and medical school successes, and they made sure that their daughter also went to college.
So, what was the struggle? These two strong women were jockeying for what they perceived as inclusion in the household that I entered as an infant. Mimi was often present, always a helper, always looking for something to do that would be useful. Mam-ma and Poppy visited often, but were the “fun” grandparents who brought us treats, took us to do fun things, but were not helpers in the way that Mimi was. Mimi saw Mam-ma as overly frank, too direct, and a bit uncouth. Mam-ma saw Mimi as a snob who was hypocritical. My parents, and to some extent the children as well, were aware of navigating challenging waters between Mimi and Mam-ma. Never overtly antagonistic, they nevertheless were cut from very different cloths and called each by their last names for all the years of my growing up.
One letter of the alphabet became emblematic of a much larger issue. Who is included? Who is on the outside? How does a family navigate the choppy waters of extended family life? How do mothers and mothers-in-law manage the tasks of allowing room for the new family to emerge? It took these two women many years; I was an adult with a child of my own before they called each other by their first names.
The stories of my grandmothers seem to me to be emblematic of the divide that is roiling our country today. One strand focuses on equal rights and embraces change; the other strand highly values continuity and traditional values. I loved both of them dearly, and I celebrated the day they finally reconciled themselves to each other and to the family that my mother and father created. Both were born at the tail-end of the 19th century; both lived to see changes that were unimaginable at their births.
The important part of this story is that they found a way to respect each other. It was a process that was grounded in love.
What is the story of naming in your family?
Susan is a communications and relationship specialist, counselor, Imago Relationship Therapist, businesswoman, mother, and proud native Nashvillian. She has been in private practice for over 30 years. As she says, “I have the privilege of helping to mend broken hearts.” Contact Susan at http://www.susanhammondswhite.com
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