Why Me?—What’s in a name? A lot.

(2001, age 54)

As I write this, I am just days from being a grandfather. My son and his wife have mentioned many possible names for our new grandson. I am reluctant to comment, because of the disconnected feeling I have from the name I was given. Let me back up fifty years or so and explain.

Not when or where I was born are of much interest. Why I was brought in to this world is something I can never be sure of, but I have my suspicions. I can almost hear my mother and father deciding “Let’s have another child.” That’s the key: another child. My parents, James Frank and Virginia Snider, were married in 1944 and moved into the house on 3461 Shadeland Avenue on Pittsburgh’s North Side. In the years following, World War II ended and many of the soldiers came home from the battlefield to regain a normal life. Many got married and began their families. Though my father had never been in WWII, within the framework of the post-War euphoria, Robert was born. That was November of 1945. I was the second child in the family. I suspect that I was born so Robert wouldn’t be an only child. It was all part of the American ideal: two children, two years apart. One month short of two years after Robert arrived, on October 18, 1947 at 3:18 AM, another child was born to Jim and Virginia Frank.

I can imagine the discussion, though my version is probably an exaggeration. “What name should we give our little son? We gave our first son two ancestorial names, steeped in family history. We named him Robert Shelby Frank. What name for our second son? There are some great family names like Morgan or Philip or Pindall we could choose. But this is our second son, so instead of giving him his own family names to carry on, let’s pick a name that sounds good with our first son’s name. Never mind the names will be meaningless. Let’s see, Robert Shelby… How about Roger Bradley?”

So there I was, Roger Bradley Frank, and already under the shadow on my brother. As the years progressed, this same pattern of being Robert’s little brother repeated again and again. Mother liked to sew clothes for her children. You can tell that from the photographs in the old family album I have. There we are, Robert and Roger, almost always dressed alike. How I wished there would be fewer photos of us together, or even better, photos of us together but wearing different outfits. Perhaps I’m extra sensitive about this because when Kiffaney and I had our own family, our two youngest children were born twins. I had a problem with not being allowed to have my own identity, even down to wearing clothes like my brother wore. With twins, the temptation for parents to blur identities is even stronger. How often our friends would ask “How are the twins?”

At least Kiffaney and I were aware of the importance of trying to let each son be an individual. That’s one of the reasons we named each of our sons with individual names—Bradley, Nathan and Tyler. I wish my parents had been as sensitive to what’s in a name. Many years after I was born, my little sister was born. She was given the name Linda Gail Frank. Her middle name was chosen after a cousin, Rhonda Gayle Icenhower. Mother asked Aunt Ruth how to spell Rhonda’s middle name. Ruth wasn’t sure but said she thought it was “Gail.” So Linda Gail Frank was put on the birth certificate. Later Ruth asked Rhonda how her name was spelled and learned it was “Gayle,” but it was too late. I knew this for years and debated telling Linda about it. Yet I know she wondered where her name might have come from. I had been doing years of family research, and told her all about an ancestor with her brother’s middle name, Shelby. Her own name - was that from someone in the family? It was too different to be random. Where did it come from? I told her in the late 1980s about the misunderstanding on Rhonda’s name. I hope it doesn’t bother Linda that there was a mistake. At least there was an attempt to tie a new child to an earlier generation, not merely to an older sibling.

Sometimes tying people back to earlier generations may not be such a good idea. Often our ideas about what our ancestors were like are selectively better than they really were. Eleven years ago I published a Genealogy and Personal History which was the result of many years of research into my family history. Though the GPH was as accurate as I could make it, it didn’t include all that I had learned. My comments on one generation in the manuscript are limited to the basic facts. However, the full story is more interesting, though not as complimentary as some might want it to be.

I have an early recollection of my mother telling me about a series of unfortunate deaths in one generation of her family. I didn’t pay much attention to it at the time, as that was well before I became interested in family history. I do remember her telling me something about someone’s neck being broken by a window that fell. It was one of those heavy wood and glass windows that apparently slid down while one of my ancestors was peering out the window. Now I never found that particular incident recorded anywhere, but I do think I know which generation of her family my mother was talking about.

In that group of siblings, the eldest, Elizabeth, never married. She committed suicide by poisoning. Her brother’s obituary reveals “Archie, 61, of Arnettsville…died at 3:20 p.m. Sunday in Fairmont Emergency Hospital from injuries suffered in a fall at home last Thursday.” But there’s more to this story, as recalled in personal correspondence: “Archie Snyder went to the local preacher a week before he died and told him not to bother with his upcoming sermon because he would have to prepare for a new sermon—his [Archie’s] funeral. A sister, Kate lived to an old age, though her husband and children did not. Her husband, a mine forman, was killed at a miners’ union meeting. The children were Betty, ‘found dead in a bathroom’; Edward, who died at age seven or eight, and another son who died young. In Kate’s later years she was kept by a relative, who recalled “[Kate] now waits for PaPa or Arch to come for her and is many times seeing to Hallie who is ill.” Yet “PaPa” and “Arch” had been dead for years, and “Hallie”, who Kate claimed to be caring for, had died over seventy years earlier. Hallie had died at age 8 and Harriet, nicknamed “Hope”, died at age 1. Another brother, Robert, was reported to have been “killed along the Nevada/California border and is buried in that vicinity.” In personal correspondence I was told “There was something mysterious about Robert Snider and his death. We do know that he changed his last name to Smith.” Another brother was an electrician at the Barrackville Mine. According to locals and relatives he was a very heavy drinker. At the time of his death he had been drinking and was walking along the highway to his home near Fairmont when he was struck by a car and thrown 20 to 25 feet over the hill. He was not found for several days because of the location of the body.

So perhaps it may be just fine that I was not named after an ancestor, at least in that generation. Then again, if the truth were known about any generation, would it not be more realistic than what the family historians would have us remember? Certainly it would be more interesting.

Right along with not being important enough to be given a first or middle family name, I didn’t even get my own baby book. When I was researching the past to reconcile fading memories with what was left of recorded reality, I had occasion to look through all the old photo albums that I had from my parents. I have the baby books of my brother, my sister, and of me. As I looked them over, something seemed odd. In my book, there is a photo of me right on the inside cover page. Below that, there is a date written in ink: October 18, 1947. What’s so odd about that? It is my baby book and I was born on October 18th. Yet neither my brother’s nor my sister’s baby books start with a photo. Come to look at it, the photo that is in my book isn’t particularly noteworthy. It is a strange size, too, as a frontspiece in a book. I wanted to see if there was anything written on the back of the photo to help explain the mystery, so I gently lifted the photo from the corner mounts that held it to the inside cover page. Then I discovered why the photo was there. With the photo removed, I read on the inside cover of the baby book:

To: Laura Elizabeth
From: Peggy Purdy
Date: October 12, 1947

The date of October 12, 1947 had been changed to October 18th, my birthday, by my Mother. Then she carefully placed the photo over the To: and From: spaces.

The book had been someone else’s first. A big deal? Perhaps not. But I still wish I had been given my own baby book and not one that someone else couldn’t use. I am tempted to research the children that were born on October 12, 1947 at that hospital. But then again, maybe I don’t want to know why that baby book was used for me and not by its original intended recipient. Whatever happened to Laura Elizabeth, born October 12, 1947 in that hospital?

I was not given a family name and I was not given my own baby book. Before I came home from the hospital, the stage was set for a childhood of being considered second in everything to my brother and having to fight for an identity of my own.