When I was little, I had the idea that naming a child after someone magically imbued him or her with the personality and qualities of their namesake. I remember deciding once during a playdate that if I ever had a daughter, I would name her after a certain friend of my brother’s, a little girl I adored and thought was nearly perfect. If my daughter shared her name, surely she would turn out to be just as pretty and funny and smart and kind as that friend—simply carrying the same name, I thought, must mean that they also share identical qualities and characteristics.
I eventually outgrew the magical notion that the name itself carries a person’s character or encapsulates their essence, but I still believe there’s something to be said for passing on a meaningful name, for choosing a name for a child that represents who and what you hope they might become, for teaching them about the character and values of the person they’ve been named after, a person you hope they’ll look up to and admire. Every now and then, we’ll get comments on our son Forrest’s name—young couples will compliment us on choosing “such a unique name,” middle-aged men will (maddeningly) ask if he’s named after Forrest Gump and drawl about boxes of chocolates, and older ladies seem gratified that we went with something classic and traditional. To be honest, none of those thoughts were much of a consideration in selecting our Forrest’s name—we weren’t trying to be cute or different, we certainly weren’t naming him after a character, and although I do love its strong, classic sound, we weren’t trying to hearken back to a simpler time in picking an old-fashioned name, either. Our Forrest is named for his great-grandfather, Forrest Allred.
I’m sorry to admit that I didn’t know my grandpa Forrest as well as I wish I did. He passed away when I was in middle school, and we always lived states apart. Visits were infrequent and short, but they were enough to make an enormous impact on my young heart and mind. I remember his excitement to see his grandkids, the way he’d sing and dance around the room with each of us one by one, and laughing as he told the same silly jokes during every visit (“I’ll see you in the spring if I make it through the mattress!”). I remember how he talked to each of us, the individual time he’d spend with every child in the family, his efforts to make everyone feel special and loved. I remember thinking as a little girl that I must secretly be his favorite grandchild—surely he didn’t talk to each of his 53 grandchildren the way he talked to me, or mail little notes and poems to all of my cousins, or tell each one how smart and special and pretty they were. I wouldn’t be surprised now if I learned that each of his grandkids thought they were his secret favorite, too—he had a gift for making everyone feel important and deeply valuable.
It was only years after his death that I learned more about him and the person he was beyond the silly jokes and old tunes and twirling with grandkids around the living room. Although I only knew him as my affectionate, funny, cheerful grandpa, I learned that he had spent much of his life struggling with bipolar disorder, battling clinical depression while trying to provide for the wife and nine children who so needed his presence and support. I learned that when his first deep depression hit when he was just a young boy in elementary school, he was so crippled that he couldn’t complete the school year. I learned that he spent his childhood struggling to catch up with his classmates in school, working his way through college, and eventually providing for his family while fighting off his illness. I learned that the man I had always thought of as just my funny, smiling grandpa had undergone years of therapy, drug treatments, and often ineffective medical care to keep his disorder at bay and allow him to be himself and live his life without the weight of mental illness.
Despite (or perhaps because of) these struggles he faced and the daily fight against bipolar disorder, he was one of the most exemplary people I’ve ever known. He had a firm faith in God, a testimony of the gospel, and a deep love for the Savior. He believed in a Heavenly Father who loved him and would help him through his trials, both the mundane obstacles of normal, daily life and the debilitating pain of his depression. He found meaning in his illness as a way to draw closer to and rely completely on the God who had created him and given him that specific trial to bear. He had bipolar disorder, but he had a full, rich, happy life . . . a vibrant faith, a career as a teacher that allowed him to inspire and educate others, a loving family, a passion for knowledge, good books, writing, and music. Although I didn’t have the chance to get to know him well before he died, I’ve always felt a certain bond with my grandpa Forrest. Beyond a connection through the hobbies we share—a love for reading and writing, singing and music, theater and the arts--I’ve felt inspired by his unwavering faith, his devotion to his family and his beliefs, and his strength and courage in facing and overcoming his struggles. I’ve loved hearing stories from my mom and her siblings about growing up with him—from the hilarious absentminded antics he’d pull (like accidentally boarding the wrong plane and only realizing his mistake when he’d landed in the wrong state) to the simple fun they had together (putting on family plays and concerts), and the lessons and values he taught them about treating others with understanding and compassion. I admire his accomplishments in life (though they may be humble by worldly standards, they are huge to those who love him), his determination to conquer the daunting struggles in his life, his genuine love and concern for others, and the purpose and meaning he searched for and found in his unique personal trials.
So when Jeff and I learned two years ago that a little boy would be joining our family—the very moment the ultrasound tech said the words and we knew our sweet little peanut was a he—we said, “That’s our Forrest.” Early in the pregnancy, we had briefly entertained a few other options and tried out a few different names to see how they felt, but we always came back to Forrest. We wanted our son to have an example of perseverance, spirituality, strength, love, and kindness, and we hope that sharing a name with his great-grandpa who possessed so many wonderful qualities will be an inspiration to him. Yes, his name is rather unique. He might not run into many other Forrests in his life, and I suppose he could end up on the receiving end of a few Forrest Gump jokes. But he’ll always have a reminder--whatever he does and wherever he goes--of the strong, loving, wise, faithful man who left an undeniable impression on those who knew and loved him. I think my grandpa Forrest would be very happy about that.