What's In a Name?

The choice of what to name your child is such a personal and important choice. It is the first gift that you design for your child consciously that will stay with that child for their entire lives, even before you put into action other parenting choices, you have named that child. A name is not a determiner of character, that is your child’s gift to you, but what you call that child becomes an identity to that character they have brought to the world. To me, it is among the most beautiful embodiments of the parent/child connection. This is why my heart hurts when I hear stories of family members or friends who have made comments about what parents have chosen to name their child. A phenomenon, I have noticed, that people seem to think is fair game while the baby is still gestating, but once that baby has been born people tend to keep their mouths shut. I did a google search to see what Emily Post would have to say about this, and turned up empty handed. I like to think that she would agree with me, that thoughts regarding the naming of a child are best kept to ones self, regardless of how close you believe you are to the child’s mother and father.

**I must out myself here, I was in the camp that felt free to smack talk Gwyneth Paltrow for naming her first child Apple. I must note that Apple was born before I became a mother. My excuse, of course, is that there are many things that I have learned since I became a mother, myself, and one of them is how deeply hurtful people’s commentary on choice of name can be. I want to publicly apologize to Gwyneth Paltrow for any pain I may have caused her. It is nice to have that off my conscience. **

All of my children’s names have a story associated, but the story of the women for whom my eight-month-old daughter is named, is so special. I want to share it, because these women exemplified for me qualities that I wish for all women to possess. I thank you in advance for indulging me, and hope you find some element of them that is meaningful to you. Apologies to my family if I have gotten the facts muddled, this is my version of these wonderful women who have inspired me, and I honor them in this way:

My daughter’s first name is Tilla. We call her Tillie. She is named for my great grandmother Tillie, who was called Tilla. That’s the only backwards part of the story. My great grandmother Tilla Louise spent her childbearing years on a farm near Moorhead, Minnesota, in a town called Shelly. Luckily for me, one of her children was “Boppa”, my mother’s Daddy, Gerald. As an aside, I must note that my Boppa is one of the most influential men in my life. I adore him, as does anyone who has been fortunate enough to meet him. So much so, that I always said when I met a man who reminded me of my Boppa, I would marry him. And I did.

Great grandma Tilla had four children. Three were born before her life changed dramatically. You see, my great grandmother Tilla had Polio, and was very near to death. Boppa remembers this quite well, and it was a turning point in his life, as well (I can only imagine how the threat of losing your mom would change your life). Tilla recovered miraculously, but was never able to regain the strength or mobility of the left side of her body. As a farm wife, she did all the cooking for the family and the staff of the farm and she managed to do it (and do it well, and with a good attitude, according to all accounts - I still hear stories about her bread) with the limited use of her left arm. After her recovery from Polio, Tilla gave birth to her fourth and final child. Her children had children, then her children’s children had children, and her greatest pain was that she was never able to hold all these beautiful children. My heart aches to think about it, because it is a pain that I know. The need and desire of the mother’s heart to wrap your protective arms around these sweet, vulnerable, perfect little creatures, and to be limited in that ability. I understand. This is why we chose the name for our daughter. In my mind’s eye, I see my first baby girl, Brady, in heaven, cradled in the able and loving arms of my great grandmother, Tilla.

However, Tilla’s legacy is greater than this. It is greater than her will to survive and thrive despite her physical limitations. Tilla’s legacy is a refrain that has been passed down from great grandma Tilla, to my Boppa, from Boppa to my mom, from mom to me, and now will be passed to my children; “There is good in everyone, you just have to look a little harder in some.” Shelly was a town settled by Norwegians. At home, Tilla and her husband Melvin spoke mainly Norwegian. My Boppa’s first language was Norwegian, though he was born and raised in the United States. As they were assimilating to the culture and learning the native language, there were times that they were treated poorly, a story about a teacher who was what we would consider in these times, abusive to my Boppa because his command of the English language was not yet full comes to mind. (Pardon my personal, political commentary, but it seems as though times have not changed very much, have they?) My Boppa fought in World War II, and was in the Platoon that liberated Dachau. I prefer not to imagine the things that he saw during that time in his life because it is a harsh juxtaposition to the jolly man that I know with the sunny outlook. However, Boppa came through those experiences with that same refrain, “There is good in everyone, you just have to look a little harder in some.”

I remember the few times I was with my great grandmother, Tilla. I remember when she died. I remember the night that my mother left to be with the family in Shelly to make final arrangements. I remember the loss that we felt. This loss, I have come to understand better with age and perspective. Because I have so few of my own stories of her, I collect stories of Tilla like curios, and stow them away to share with her namesake when the time is right, so she too can know, “there is good in everyone, you just have to look a little harder in some.”


My daughter, Tillie’s middle name is Violet for my husband’s grandmother, whom this world has missed since 2007. Violet would only be called Vi. She was a legend in the Nokomis East neighborhood. To call her eccentric seems to be an understatement. To say that words do not describe her, is too common. I can use the familiar idioms, “one of a kind”, “marched to the beat of her own drum”, “one in a million”, and even those don’t seem to do. Vi said what she thought, when she thought it no matter what. Vi spoke up for herself unafraid of the chips and where exactly they may fall. She knew what she wanted, when she wanted it, and exactly how she wanted it, and because she knew, she made sure YOU knew. Even though Vi grew up in a time when women may not have been encouraged to do so, Vi found her voice, and USED it. I learned this about Vi the first time I met her, and grew to appreciate and admire this about her while she was still living and even more in her absence. I can only give my daughter the space to find her own voice, and encourage her to find the courage to use it. Vi left us the gift of many stories, which will be shared through the years with my Tilla Violet about the woman who had perfected the art of living life out loud.


Names have stories. How and why a person came to be called what they are called is part of where their story begins. Having had the fortune of naming five children of my own, two of whom did not live to learn the stories of their names, I have learned to shift my impulse when someone shares their child’s name. Where I may have, at one time, only thought of it as a title, I know a name now as a story, and I ask, “what’s your story?”


  1. My name doesn't have a good story... to my knowledge. All I know about my own name is that I was named after a soap opera character and that Mom liked the name. I hope to give good thought to the names of my children, just like you. =)

  2. Colleen - you are SUCH a good writer...how, on earth, do you have time to raise three little ones, work at mytalk AND write this blog?!

  3. I LOVE this story. Thank-you so much for sharing. When you have time, would love to hear about the thoughts behind Ollie and Keller's names. Brady is of course beautifully named <3


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