Yes, I realize that I have given my son a name that requires a little bit of splainin. And I admit, that even after I’d chosen it, I myself didn’t know how it was spelled, or where exactly it came from… Apart from the basic phonetics and the fact that it was a Yaley name that had lived in the lore of my family as long as I could remember (dad both graduated from and taught at the school – class of ’48) – apart from those two things, I really didn’t know the full implications of the name or its history until much later. To set the record straight – my son’s name is pronounced “EL ih hyoo”. Try as we have to come up with clever rhymes to help remember his name, there aren’t any good ones. “Tell a few” is one. “Smell a pew” is another (yeeps!). And I realize this pronunciation isn’t very intuitive. I myself might guess it to be “el I hoo” if I didn’t know otherwise. And if you speak another language (as Elihu’s grandpa Riaz and grandma Nelly), then you’ll likely never say it the same way we native English speakers from North America do. The diphthong of the ‘hyoo’ sound isn’t easy for some. So much for a low-maintenance, internationally-friendly name.
I’ve never been too comfortable with name choices that called attention to themselves too strongly, but I think I’ve kinda blown it there. I had hoped to subtly distinguish myself from the fashionable, mildly radical choices that began to appear ten years ago… girls named Poppy, Scarlet or Ruby, or boys with names all ending in some sort of ‘un‘ sound, a phenomenon which makes a first name sound more like a sur name; Cason, Mason, Braden, Bryson… I was skittish around Skylars and Ravens, Tuckers and Morgans… Naming a child is a difficult business; you must figure out how to stay ahead of the curve, how to offer your child something that will serve him both as well on the playground as in the boardroom… My personal goal was to set my child apart from the flock yet somehow stay within the wider scope of what would be culturally accepted. A tall order. And it was one I simply did not have the solution for til almost a week after my son was born.
“Isn’t that illegal?” people would ask in a surprised tone when I told them my newborn son had no name. At first I hesitated. I didn’t think so, but was it? I hadn’t ever heard of an unnamed baby before… But then I remembered once hearing about some native Americans that didn’t name a baby until weeks after the child was born – not until the baby’s emerging personality became evident. And some Indonesian people waited to name their newborns too (plus these folks didn’t allow the baby to even touch the floor for the first few months of its life)… There were clearly many ways to do this. And certainly this was no small matter. The name we gave our son would help to define him to the world. I was not going to allow myself to be rushed in such an important matter.
So why didn’t I have a name ready for him? Because, of course, I was positive that I was having a girl! Fareed and I opted for a surprise, and surprised we were. When Fareed announced it was a boy, I told him that that was impossible; after all, we didn’t have a boy’s name picked out! Elihu was to have been Eva, with the classic, European pronunciation of “Ava”. International, good for traveling and would require very little explanation. We had wanted a name that would work well in either of Fareed’s parent’s cultures. So when Elihu arrived, I was completely stumped. A boy?? So not my plan.
Surprisingly, I had not been worried about finding a name for our son. I just kept whispering to my infant child over and over “You’ll let us know when it’s the right one, I know you will”… and I just simply waited. It was a warm May morning and I was in bed nursing him when it came to me. “Eli” popped into my head, but I knew that still wasn’t quite it. I remembered mom and dad referencing ‘old Eli’ – the nickname for Elihu Yale, the philanthropist whose gift made possible the first structure of the campus – and I remembered that Eli had been short for something… what was it again? I’d heard it many times but hadn’t paid much attention. But I remember it had sounded elegant, old-world like… I called my mother at once, learned the name from her, and in my heart it was settled. I had no idea how the name was spelled, but I loved the sound… EL ih hyoo… It sounded like a Lord, like a Knight, like a gallant young man… And he could be an Eli. Yes. That was an easy name! That might travel as easily as Eva… Yet he would have a fine, proper name to fall back on should he wish. I called Fareed immediately with my idea, but he thought Eli sounded like something from the Beverly Hillbillies. I had to agree with him. Our culture didn’t wholly support Elis yet. No Eli Mannings then. Instead, Eli was still an elderly Jewish widower who lived in the apartment building across the street. But I was willing. After all, our names would share the biblical root of “El”. My father would have a legacy to honor his beloved alma mater, and our son could dress the name up or down as he chose. What was not to like? When Fareed asked me what the full name was and I told him, he liked it instantly. Yes, he really liked it. This was exciting. Did our child really have a name? Only five minutes before he had been my dearest baby boy (this is what I called him that first week of his life), and now here he was. He was Elihu. (I remember whispering to him again that I knew he’d tell us; I hadn’t been worried).
While I made up nursery songs for my son using his proper name, I called him Eli most of the time, and certainly out in public. I was always terribly self-conscious about his name being so different, so strangely spelled, so unusual. People have always been timid about repeating it after I tell them, and frankly I don’t blame them. It is a weird name. I knew a woman whose grandfather was named Elihu and that brought me some relief. Finally, one person to whom I owed no explanation. If only we’d lived a couple hundred years ago it wouldn’t have been such a big deal. But using ‘Eli’ helped. Made it easier, for sure.
When Elihu was around four, shortly after we left Evanston, he told me that his name was not Eli, but Elihu. I was taken aback at how matter-of-factly he’d told me. He really and truly meant it. And honestly, it made me feel better to hear it from him. Somehow it gave me better resolve to use his proper name with less concern for the comfort of others. So he became a full-time Elihu at the age of four. (He’s still Eli to some family and friends, but that’s fine too.)
I don’t mean to belabor the story of my son’s name, but I find these related stories of great wonder…
First, there is the story of settler Elihu Conant. This gentleman farmer was originally from a town here in upstate New York, just some ten miles up the road from the very house from which I now write, and in the mid 1800s he moved to Dekalb, Illinois. Can you believe this? I mean, really? I have googled up and down and never found another Elihu Conant, save my son – who made nearly the exact cross-country move only in reverse some 150 years later – and this man. A quick google search will pull up a firsthand accounting of Elihu Conant’s misfortune from the Lee County Historical Society files. In the laws of the time a property owner himself was guilty of crimes committed on his lands if no evidence existed to prove otherwise. High drama between tenants resulted in a shooting and death, and Elihu as landowner was subsequently jailed for six years. After researching all I could, locating the spot of his ancient farm and finally visiting it myself (my own Elihu napping unawares in the back seat) my heart was deeply saddened to find nothing left…. nothing at all. On the very spot where once stood his home, and presumably trees, a well, some barns and outbuildings… not a one of these things remained. All that was left was an enormous, undulating field of soy bean plants stretching off into the distance. Ah well. His witness lives on in me, and now in all of you. And anyway, that particular Elihu is certainly long past his misery here…
There is another Elihu of some significance to us who once lived in here in Greenfield, too. Martha’s fine old country home was built in the early 1800s by settler Elihu Wing. Did you get that? Elihu Wing. It almost seems there was a cosmic mix up and my son got the wrong last name. That I’ve known Elihu Wing’s home all of my life – and that my son has too – it just gives the house an even greater significance in our lives.
Then there’s the Elihu of ancient times, the young man in the book of Job who sits and patiently listens to the old timers complain that while they’ve made all the requisite sacrifices God has asked of them, they’re beginning to doubt such a God exists as He’s not responded in kind. Finally, Elihu, the youngest member present, speaks. He cites miracles of nature, the perfect organization of the seasons, the relationships between all creatures and more… all this, must be, Elihu pours from his heart, irrefutable evidence of an all-knowing, all-loving God. Suffice to say, he’s the kid at the party, and yet he’s the one with the line to the truth. Right on. I like that story.
There have been a handful of distinguished men over the past several hundred years named Elihu. Each a successful, intelligent contributor to his work. One ran for Vice President, one designed Boston’s first municipal electrical grid, one served as peace activist who opposed the slavery of his time, and one was an Italian educated artist whose works hang in the Smithsonian. For a sleeper of a name that almost no one’s ever heard of, it’s got a lot of impressive history behind it which hopefully portends the bright and happy future of one nine year old boy who, like those great men before, also answers to the name of Elihu.