A fool-hearty artist learns the real value of a name and the origins of his own.

My parents bestowed upon their children good ol’ fashioned conservative names. Al four of us were given names that are easy to say and spell. What other ways could you spell a Grant or a Ben? No need for endlessly spelling out our names over the phone to appointment setters in doctor’s offices, or long-haired redneck bail bondsman. No worries of having people constantly butchering the pronunciation of our names. No psychic damage from schoolyard bullies rhyming our names with embarrassing body functions.

However, I believe there are benefits from having unique names, too. There must be some benefit from having parents who are trendsetters—visionary bestowers of appellations (to be a bit grandiose). My wife and I must, at least partly, fall into this category. None of our three daughters have names that I had even heard of before we decided to use them. They’re not totally outlandish, like certain celebrity kid names. But we made sure that none of our kids got names where the spelling is taken for granted. We have cursed them with a lifetime of having to patiently spell out their names to everyone who asks. Sure, they could always legally change their names to something more common, but not on my watch, sister.

So, what are the other, if any, benefits of having a unique name? I’ll have to think about that. But first, back to my siblings.

My brothers have names that have been recorded in scripture. Benjamin, Aaron and Daniel. Each one has stories associated with them—traits and qualities our parents admired. Although Benjamin is more of a prominent character in Mormon scripture, the name is also mentioned a few times in the standard King James Bible, like my other two brothers. My favorite story is about Daniel, who was thrown into a den of lions to be devoured because he continued to pray to his Jewish god despite the specific command of his king forbidding it. It’s a tale of jealousy; the non-Jews were envious of the successful Jews, much like the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who were saved by God’s intervention, sending an angel to protect them in the midst of the fiery furnace. Daniel, instead of being ripped to shreds and eaten, later recounts that he was likewise saved by an angel who was sent to close the jaws of the lions. I wonder if this was done in some magical Harry Potter-esque way, with the flick of a wand. Or maybe it was more literal, with some musclebound-lion-tamer-of-an-angel literally holding the pesky lion mouths closed. Maybe the angel was the Tiger King type, with a blond mullet and a flat top and a checkered past.

Since my brothers all have names with religious ties, I kind of assumed that I was named after one of the modern Mormon prophets I learned about in Sunday school, Heber J. Grant. Either that or Ulysses S. Grant, former U.S. president and closeted slave owner. I’m not sure which one I’d prefer being named after. One was a polygamist land developer in the early days of the Mormon settlement of Salt Lake City. The other was a military leader and politician who opposed slavery yet was also the last president who owned another human being. It's known that he owned at least one slave, which he kind of inherited through his wife upon their marriage. He also sometimes directed a team of slaves at their plantation. Yet it’s clear from historical records he was anti-slavery. He emancipated his personal slave a few years before the civil war. He was the 18th president of the U.S. and you can see his face on the $50 bill (which is also called a “frog” by horse race gamblers and it’s considered unlucky). You cannot, however, see his face on the statue of him in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Earlier this year a group of protesters used rope and frenzied determination to pull down the statue and douse it in red paint. I’m not sure where it is now. Check out his tomb in upper Manhattan while it lasts. It’s the biggest one in the states.

Isn’t it strange that I could go my whole life and not be certain of the source of my own name? Am I really that uninquisitive? Time to have a long overdue chat with mom and pops. Luckily, they live next door. Wow, talk about lazy! I sat down with mom and brought up the subject after she made us dinner recently. Wow, talk about spoiled!

So which president was I named after? Turns out it was neither! They just liked the name. They just liked the name? What a gas. Granted, it's a nice name (sorry). I've always liked it. Not really a huge letdown, I guess—I never went around bragging about having the name of a president. Just a simple fact I needed to accept.

Speaking of people making fun of names, she went on to say I was almost named Graham, after one of their favorite singers of seventies, Graham Nash, but they changed their mind because they foresaw playground bullying with nicknames like “Graham the cracker.” Compassion!

Graham Nash is a British-American musician who, as a child, was evacuated from his home in Lancashire during WWII. He is known for his tenor voice and for being part of the folk-rock supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash. Later on, he wouldn’t have to worry about being the last name in the group’s name. Soon the ampersand in the group’s name was cut and pasted after Nash, as they poached the talented young Canadian Neil Young from his rock band Buffalo Springfield. Although not quite a personal mantra, I have thought to myself a line from one of their biggest hits many times: “it’s getting to the point where I’m no fun anymore.” Somehow it doesn’t sound as sweet in my head as it does coming from his soft tenor voice.

So there you go. I guess while I’m at it, I’ll make just a quick side note, or maybe an afterthought, about my middle name. Not that middle names get much attention. All you fellow middle children out there know what that feels like. My middle name is Alan. This was given to me to pay homage to my mom’s older brother, Alan Sharpe. Alan is, or was, a truck driver who lives with his wife in North Carolina. I don’t mean that I don’t know if he still drives a truck; I know he retired from working as a trucker. I mean I don’t know if he’s still alive. He’s estranged from my family. Or maybe we’re estranged from him, I don’t know how that works. My uncle basically said he wanted nothing to do with my mom or her sister or any of her family because of their choice to become godless Mormons back in the sixties. He had become a kind of hardcore Born-Again Christian by the time I was a teenager and he had no room in his life for people who worshipped God differently from him. We never saw him at either of my grandparent’s funerals. Sad.

I don’t know very much about my uncle besides that. You know, because of the estrangement and all. She did mention that he had bullied her occasionally when she was a child (he was a teenager and was much older than his two younger sisters). He left home early, probably trying to escape my alcoholic grandfather who probably bullied him, and he started working odd jobs before becoming a truck driver. He eventually developed an addiction to uppers, as I’ve heard many truck drivers do, for help in staying awake while driving really long distances. I wonder if he struggled with alcohol, too. Or what other experiences he's had during his life that I have missed out on.

But I do have one good memory of him. He mailed me his very nice acoustic guitar when I was a teenager. He must have paid a lot on shipping insurance because it arrived to our house in Michigan in one piece. It wasn't some cheap garage sale guitar, either. It was an Alvarez-Yairi, I remember it was really pretty and it sounded much nicer than my Yamaha student guitar. He sent a letter with the guitar that said he had heard of my developing guitar skills and wanted to give this to me because he had kind of given up playing it. He had it set up with a really tall bridge so the strings were high off the fretboard and he could use it with a slide as kind of a dobro style guitar. I guess we both shared a fondness for music, and a specific appreciation for slide guitar and that genre of music.

That was very nice of him to give me that guitar. It was certainly unexpected. Looking back, I think he may never have sent it to me if he’d known that I would sell it a few years later to help pay for my two-year mission for the Mormon church! You may not know this, but all of the positions in the church are voluntary (except for the very higher-ups who apparently get paid well over six figures per year as a “modest stipend”). The missionaries you see walking through your neighborhoods peddling their religion actually have to save up to pay for those two years of grueling work. I would later find out that the Mormon church has over $100 Billion in savings. Yes, Billion! They’re one of the richest institutions on earth. Republican Senator Mitt Romney said he was tickled that his religion has “not only saved for a rainy day, but for a rainy decade.” I recently sent the church a bill as a joke to request a refund for all the tithing money I had given them over the years. They told me to go to hell. Just kidding! I’m grateful for the lessons that hard work and dedication have given me through the years. But couldn’t they spread the wealth just a little? I need to buy a new book of baby names.

#genealogy #ancestry #interestingnames #ulyssessgrant #crosbystillsnash #estranged