Dear Ellie — When you’re pregnant, one of the most delightful tasks you have is to pick out a name for the baby.
Well, wait a minute. Delightful may be overstating it. It’s a big responsibility to name a new human being, after all. And, it may also turn into a slugfest when people around you don’t always agree with your brilliant and tasteful choices.
I speak from experience. When I was pregnant with your mother in 1982 and uncle in 1986, I found I had to get a little tough with your grandfather. He’s a great guy and really smart, and all that. But his ideas about naming children were wretched and I had to put the kibosh on them immediately.
From time to time, I had to remind him, at the top of my lungs, who in our relationship was pregnant — sacrificing her body, health, and good humor to nine months of morning sickness, heartburn, stretch marks, and hideous clothes. Oh, and let’s not forget the rigors of childbirth, which I brought up on an hourly basis, when necessary. The person who suffered and sacrificed the most, I loudly announced, should have naming privileges. Obviously.
Anyway — that’s just a brief summary explaining why our children ended up with such great names, if I do say so. Your uncle is Nicholas Clift Pennebaker because I love the name Nicholas and because Clift was my mother’s maiden name. Your mother is Catherine Teal Pennebaker. Again, I love the name Catherine, but she’s always been called Teal, which is a family name. But that’s a longer story.
It may someday interest you, since you also have Teal as a middle name. Like Clift, it came from my mother’s side of the family.
I grew up hearing stories from Mother about how much she loved her paternal grandfather, William Clift. He was a gentle, sweet man she and her sister Barbara Nell spent much of their childhoods with. When they were kids, they would play “beauty salon” with him, painting his nails and rolling his thick hair into curlers. How many grandfathers would do something like that? He loved them and indulged them in a way the other busy adults in their lives couldn’t or didn’t. They called him Grandpa, so I will, too, even though he died a few years before I was born.
Fortunately, he left behind a written account of his life, which I’ll draw from, along with stories I heard growing up. He was born in Leeds, England, in 1854, to a middle-class family. At 21, he and two friends decided to move to the United States. His mother worried about him so much, she sewed money into his suspenders and under his shirt so he wouldn’t lose it.
On the train trip to Liverpool, the other two guys lost all their money to a card sharp. All the three of them had, for the remainder of the long journey across the Atlantic, was the money sewn into Grandpa’s clothes.
Entering the country, Grandpa had to come up with a middle name, because he didn’t have one. He chose Teal, his mother’s maiden name, to honor her. That’s a story I’ve always loved.
Grandpa traveled through the northern part of the country, picking strawberries, working for a seed company, laboring as a farm hand. Remember, this was only a few years after this country’s horrific Civil War had ended, almost a century-and-a-half ago. It was a different world then, rural and rough-hewn and so very young. In fact, this country wasn’t even 100 years old when he came here.
After a few years, he ended up near Agnew, Nebraska, where he farmed and boarded with a family. By then, he was 29. He proposed to the family’s 19-year-old daughter, Nellie, and she accepted after her parents gave consent. His account of it is matter-of-fact, without any romance or sentiment. But the Clifts are a pretty emotionally buttoned-down group — and besides, speaking of buttoned-down, Grandpa was a Brit. So who knows? Anyway, they went on to have six children, two daughters and four sons.
(I don’t know much at all about Nellie, my great-grandmother, who died from breast cancer in her 40s or 50s. But I do have her china, which we use once or twice a year at holidays. I wrote a radio commentary about it here, since I always think about her when we use it. It makes me feel I know her, just a little.)
After years of successful farming in Blackwell, Oklahoma, and leasing his land for oil wells, William Teal Clift died at the age of 91 in 1945. He was well-loved by his five surviving children and eight grandchildren. After 70 years in this country, he never lost his English accent, Mother always said.
His youngest grandson, Robert Teal Clift, carried on his name. Then, your mother did, and now you will. I wanted you to know what little I know about him. But, looking at his year of death in 1945, I now realize he lived through World War II, which three of his grandsons served in and survived. He must have also feared greatly for his native country during those years, it now occurs to me, but I never heard much about that.
We all leave behind scraps of unfinished stories. This is what I know of his. Love you, Coco