"The real voyage of Discovery lies not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes"
Marcel Proust

Sunday, April 17, 2011

What's in a Name?

Today is my daughter’s 12th birthday. Her name is Rose. The choice of her name didn’t originate from the delicate, yet thorny shrub in the garden; although it was sealed after a rose banner was unfurled in our church a few weeks before her birth. The choice of her name sprang from her mother’s literary desires. I named her after Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who became a successful journalist in San Francisco and then helped her mother write the memoirs of her childhood. Was it my hope that if I didn’t become a writer my daughter would become one, or would even help me find my way there?

Ted and I drove I-55, from Springfield to Chicago, this week. We rolled through towns named Shirley, Joliet, Elkhart, Bloomington, Coal City, Lincoln, Odell, Funk’s Grove, Towanda…each of them with their own story of how they were named. Many towns were born along the lines of the railroad, the steel Caesarean section that sliced across the belly of the prairie and opened up communications from town to town. Some towns were simply named for the person who ground his boots into the soil first: like the railroad engineer, William H. Odell, or the settler Isaac Funk. Funk’s Grove may be my favorite town along this stretch—a beautiful area of sugar maple trees still tapped for their sirup (not “syrup”), an oak savanna dotted with prairie wildflowers, an old family cemetery, and a peaceful chapel under the cathedral-like canopy of the woods. Lincoln—well, that one is obvious in this state with the slogan of “Land of Lincoln.” 

Other towns were named for their landscapes; surveyed with a nostalgic eye that searched for a comforting piece of their former home in the strange new land they were settling. Jesse Fell brought the name Towanda from his birthplace in Pennsylvania. Atlanta was named for Atlanta, Georgia.

My literary side delighted that Mrs. Corydon Weed named the town of Shirley after the heroine of a novel. The same was for Divernon (south of Springfield), the heroine, Di Vernon, of Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy. While Joliet would naturally be named for the French colleague of Marquette, there is another story that it was once Juliet, to complement the town of Romeo (now Romeoville) nearby. Aw, the romance! Elkhart was also recorded in the name of love. According to one story, the daughter of an Indian chief had to choose between two suitors. When an elk wandered by, she said she would choose the one who shot the arrow closest to the elk’s heart—and she did.

The fact that my alma mater, Illinois State University, sits near an area once called Keg Grove, seems too ironic. Like any name, we see the connections of that name to its place even hundreds of years later. It seems we always name well—we find the right connection to see its significance.

Rose is twelve today and her tenderly mature heart balances with the thorns she wields when she must. And speaking of Romeo(ville) and Juliet (Joliet), “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

1 comment:

  1. Lu what a wonderful, touching story. I love the history of towns and how they were named. It takes me back to what it must have been like all those years ago.