What’s in a name?

This is a note Bobby posted on Facebook a few days ago. I asked him if I could share it here, too, because it is all about the origins of Noah’s name.

I never could vocalize to Misty why I wanted so much to name our son Noah Oliver. I told her, of course, that I wanted to honor my family — honor the generations of men that came before me and who helped make me who I am today.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that. How can I tell you about my grandfathers in a way that will make you understand why this was so important to me?

My maternal grandfather was Noah Tidwell. When I was a boy, he seemed as unchanging and steady as the land he plowed. A sharecropping farmer, his skin was burned to a nutty brown, tanned and cured from hours bent to his work in the fields. He wore the kind of nylon-backed cap that’s popular with the hipster crowd these days. But he wore one to keep the sun off of his bald head. He drank Pabst Blue Ribbon because it was cheap — not because it was the “in” thing to do. He chewed Red Man chewing tobacco, and on afternoons when he would come back to the house we all called “the old place” his neck would be beet red and lined with dirt in the creases worn in his skin.

He never finished the first grade. Imagine that, if you can. I can’t. He never knew his own father. Virtually illiterate, he was a prisoner to the poverty of his station in life. And yet he married, raised a family (two sons and four daughters). He and his wife, Alzie Lee, raised those children up into productive adults. Each of those adults bettered themselves. I remember how proud he was of all of his children. How proud he was of his grandchildren. I always felt like I was his favorite. I have no idea if I was or not, but I always felt like it.

He died two days before my 27th birthday. His funeral was on my birthday. Losing him hurt so much. It’s a testament to the kind of man he was that our family still feels the shadow he cast. He was a big, rangy, strong man. Always dressed in overalls — always with a long-sleeved chambray work shirt underneath.

He may be gone, but I feel him with me every day. If I close my eyes, I can remember every line in his face. I loved him so much. And I love him still.

My paternal grandfather is a much more shadowy figure for me, almost mythical. James Oliver Mathews — they called him Oliver — was about as wide as was tall. He was short and barrel-chested (sound familiar?), and like Noah Tidwell, he worked the fields, eating the red clay dust of a dirt-poor south Alabama farm. He and his wife, Martha, had eight children. They faced hardship. My uncle Douglas died in a tragic boating accident. Another child died at birth.

Oliver Mathews got to hold me exactly one time. I was three months old when he passed away. There’s a picture somewhere of him holding me. It haunts me. Before my parents could visit again, he was dead. A blood clot in his leg broke apart and went to his heart. Dead at 58.

One of the last times I saw my Granny Mathews, she told me I was the spitting image of her late husband. I was in my mid-20s by that time. I believe I’d just shaved my head for the first time. I remember being so proud when she said that. I never knew Oliver Mathews, but I knew the kind of woman Granny was — and I knew that he must’ve been a good man to be with a woman like her.

They tell me he was strong. My dad likes to tell the story of his father hoisting a 200-lb. bag of fertilizer over one shoulder and tucking another 200-lb. bag under his other arm, and carrying those bags into the middle of a freshly plowed field. There was nothing, my dad tells me, that his father couldn’t move if he laid his hands on it. I would have liked to see that. I would have liked to know that man. Dad says he was tough, a hard man living in a hard situation. But I have seen the look of love and wonder on his face in the only photo of us together. I wish I knew that man.

Those are the men whose shadows lie across the path of my life. I love them both, for different reasons. I hope that by naming my son in their honor, a little of their strength, their character, will be imparted to him.


One response to “What’s in a name?

  1. not fair Bobby, you’re making my eyes sweat.

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