The Back Road: What’s in a name?

The Back Road: What’s in a name?

By Andrew Malekoff

Do you know the origin of your given name? How do feel about it? Love it? Hate it? Indifferent about it? A person’s given name can generate deeply personal, familial, cultural, and historical connections.
My maternal grandmother was Anna. She died shortly before I was born, which I am sure was devastating for my mother. Although I never met Grandma Anna, I was named after her. I later learned that my naming was not an easy endeavor. There is a much longer story regarding my given name that involves a murder in the family and the fact that I was never assigned a middle name.


Shortly before I was born, tragedy came to my mother’s extended family. Her cousin Bernard, who was 31, had recently been married. Upon the newlyweds returning from a two week-long honeymoon in Florida, cousin Bernard resumed his work as the night manager at a tavern in Newark, N.J.

The newspaper headline read: “City Native Slain in New Jersey Robbery.”

A newspaper report indicated that Bernard was found unresponsive, in a pool of blood, with a garrote around his neck. He appeared to have suffered blunt force trauma to his head. His father, who owned the tavern, said that more than $1,700 was missing.

Detectives believe there was more than one assailant. Bernard left a trail of blood leading to a telephone, suggesting that his last act was a futile attempt to call for help.

Bernard’s mother, my mom’s Aunt Bertha, asked my mother if she would name me after her deceased son. My mom was not comfortable naming me after him, especially given the gruesome circumstances leading to Bernard’s death.

It is not unusual for middle names to carry the legacy of an ancestor. Consequently, Aunt Bertha asked my mom if she would make my middle name Bernard as a tribute to her son.  My mom, still uneasy about the request, told her that she and my father had already decided not to give me a middle name. So I have none.

Although my mom opted out for the reasons I explained, the empty space between my first and last name, the absence of a middle name, is a constant reminder that there was a murder of a dear cousin in the family. And so, in a way, Aunt Bertha got her wish as Bernard fills that empty space every day.

As for Andrew, my given name, I have grown to love it as it is my only connection to the grandmother I never knew, and who never knew me. She was described to me as “sweet,” and as a “gem.” I feel not having known her as a loss. My name is some solace and a way of feeling close to her.

The losses are a part of my identity and help me to fill gaps in my understanding of my family history. In a strange way, perhaps it has helped me to grieve for lost relationships and the longing for the grandmother I never knew.

This past June, my youngest son Darren was married. The woman he married is Annalisa.

I most often call her Anna.

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