There is more to a name than people know

Published 10:31 am Friday, August 2, 2013

Column: Notes From Home, by David Behling

They irk me, salespeople I encounter at automobile dealerships or other “big purchase” showrooms. Ones who call on the phone often do the same. I realize that following instincts can lead to success in sales, but one would think they wouldn’t make possibly alienating assumptions about potential customers.

It’s not their fake smiles or their insincere interest in my life that irks me. The issue here is my name: David. Two syllables ending with a consonant. It’s a name with Biblical heritage, and means “beloved” in Hebrew.

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I am now and have always been a David. And contrary to the assumptions of those aforementioned salespeople, I am not a Dave. I have never been a Dave. Or a Davey … the reasons for which involve a couple of ’60s-era TV shows and are self-explanatory, I hope. Dave, as a name, implies a certain kind of casualness that has never been a part of my personality. I am uptight. I think too much about everything. When I am not channeling Spock, I am a David, not a Dave.

It’s not as though that particular nickname is evil or toxic. I don’t instantly dislike anybody who tolerates it. I know some men who appear to prefer Dave over David, and they are perfectly nice people. They clearly exude the kind of casual charm that I do not possess, and I have no trouble calling them Dave when we meet. There’s just no way we could ever be real friends.

There is a history here, of course. There is always a history. Before I was born, the name I carry now was in contention with another (much as in many families). When a child is expected, parents make up lists of possibilities; there is negotiation. But in my case, there was also an argument and a deal involving God.

The argument pitted my mother against Grossmutter (my dad’s mother). After only a year of marriage, the resistance my mother put up in this matter of my name surprised everyone, including, I think, my mother.

The heart of it was that Grossmutter insisted my name follow a family tradition from the old country: Heinrich Johan Behling III. The only concession she was willing to extend to “modern” ways of living and her new homeland was that we could use the English variations as the “official” baptismal name. My father apparently stayed out of it. (I’ve often wondered if this was the reason he volunteered to be deployed to the Mediterranean region so soon after my mother realized she was pregnant.)

Henry John Behling III. What a name. I shudder when I consider that it could have been mine. Who would I have become as Henry III? I’m uptight, not pretentious. What would my name for everyday use have been? Little Hank, following my father’s nickname? Henry, or even Heinrich, following Grossvater’s practice? Would that unique essence that is me have become warped or stunted under the burden of tradition?

The one thing that is certain is that I cannot imagine being the same kind of man I am now if I had been saddled with Henry III.

My mother, who was both pious and clever, resolved the argument in a way that left Grossmutter, who was also pious, no way to offer any more objections. She put the two names on a calendar, alternating the names day by day for the week before and the week after the due date. The week I was born, if I had born on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday, I would have been baptized Henry III. The other days were assigned to David, with Henry relegated to the middle name position. When my mother showed the calendar to Grossmutter, she said that God would sort things out by being in charge of the day I was born.

And thus it was that David — the full version — became the only name to which I respond.

What I do not know, and never had the courage to ask, is whether my mom made special efforts toward going into labor on days assigned to David or if she really did leave it up to God. As I said already, she was both pious and clever ….
David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.