When I was pregnant with our first child, Jeff and I decided on a boy name and a girl name but we did not tell anyone the names, fearing ridicule. Which is what lead to this endearing exchange in the hospital just after our son was born when my parents came to visit.
my mom: Oh my gosh he's darling! What's his name?
my mom: (snort-laugh) No, really...?
I thought it was a great idea to name a child after a beloved literary figure--after all you would avoid the potential pitfalls of naming your child after a beloved historical figure only to find out later the figure was not exactly who you thought. Imagine the disappointment of that couple in "The Cosby" show who named their twins Winnie and Nelson, only to find out a few years later that Winnie was a big opportunistic ho. Well, I'm sure they weren't as disappointed as Nelson himself, but you get the idea.
So I thought a literary figure was safe. What I did not even consider, but now see nearly 17 years later quite clearly, was the possiblity that I could name my kid after one of the most revered fictitious heroes of our time and then my kid could turn out to be an asshole. How stupid would that have looked?
Fortunately, I am quite happy to say my kid is not an asshole. In fact, I think he nicely embodies the spirit of Atticus Finch. Our Atticus is cerebral, and kind, and well beyond his years. Last summer, as many of you know, he asked to go to a Buddhist retreat in the Catskills where he meditated for hours. Really. As I write this he is in the city where he is taking a class in Sound Recording and one in Creative Writing at the Columbia College Summer High School program. He'll take the train home, something he's done on his own for some time.
So though it was a big risk, it turned out great. He loves his name and he loves that about half the world, upon hearing his name for the first time will ask, "Like from To Kill a Mockingbird?" (Apparently the other half never went to high school). And he likes that the name is unique. There is only one other Atticus in Glenview--a boy three years younger who is as unique and cerebral as our Atticus, (and also a Buddhist). He does not mind sharing his name with him.
When he was born I wrote a letter to Harper Lee. I just addressed it to Miss Harper Lee in Monroeville, Alabama, not expecting anything but wanting her to know the name lived on. A few weeks later I received a letter from her--typed obviously on a typewriter. It is among my most prized posessions. (Of course, having said that, I have to confess that I have torn the house apart for two days and can't seem to find it, but it's here, of that I'm sure.)
( A bit off topic but regarding kids' names, I should mention that my girls both have heroic middle names. Grace's middle name is Imogene after the character Idgy in Fried Green Tomatoes, and yes I have a letter from the author Fannie Flagg. Lilly's middle name is Ruby, the only name we chose of a living hero, after Ruby Bridges, the girl who appears in a Norman Rockwell painting, accompanied by federal marshalls as she integrated the New Orleans school system. And I have a lovely letter from her as well.)
So on this 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, rest assured, the good name of Atticus lives on.
Even if Harper Lee's letter is temporarily misplaced.