When Kelsey McCook Warner was born in June 1989, my husband and I were grateful, ecstatic and a bit relieved. But nearly eight years later, during my second pregnancy, I realized that the name “Kelsey” — one that we both loved — had created a problem I could have never imagined.
Not too long after we learned the sex of our second child (a boy!), I blithely pulled out a yellowed list of names that we had considered when naming our first child in 1989. I added a few new names to the list, then rambled them off to my husband. He didn’t say much. At first, I didn’t pay attention to his non-responsiveness, but after it went on for a good 20 minutes, I realized that I was talking to myself.
“Hellloooooooo?” I said. “What do you think? We’ve got a good ten names here, and we’ve got a few months to decide.”
Silence. I chose to ignore the body language.
Looking uncomfortable yet determined, and with a certain set to his jaw that should have put me on code red alert, he finally spoke.
“We can’t do that.”
“Can’t do what?”
“Use any of those names. They just won’t work.” Then he added, without a trace of sheepishness or irony, “We’re the K family now. He has to have a name that begins with K.”
Yes, he’s Ken. And I’m Kathleen. And our then almost-eight-year-old-daughter is Kelsey. So yeah, he was right, to the extent that we had a family where each of our first names began with K. But where he lost me was that somehow those facts meant that our son’s name also needed to start with a “K.”
For Ken, it was a matter of belonging, of being part of our precious family unit. In his mind, Baby Boy Warner would never truly feel like a member of our family unless he too, had a K name. In fact, Ken thought aloud, Baby Boy Warner would feel like an outsider, unwanted and unloved, unless his name began with a K. I wondered aloud if Baby Boy Warner might actually prefer plausible deniability of any connections to a family so clearly looped.
I pleaded, cajoled, stonewalled, bargained, all to no avail. Ken was dead-set. Defeated, I agreed: his name would start with a K. I decided not to tell any of my family and friends what we were doing, not wanting either input on the name nor judgment regarding my husband’s pigheaded peculiarity. I was judging him enough for everyone.
In some ways, I appreciated that I didn’t have 25 other letters of the alphabet to consider. Unfortunately, the real battle was about to begin. And this time, I couldn’t point to Ken. Rather, I had to face head-on my own complicated relationship with certain names.
Ken’s first list included “Ken, Kurt and Karl.” I didn’t want a “junior,” so Ken was out. Given that our last name was Warner, and that both Ken and Kelsey were very blond and blue-eyed, I didn’t like how Germanic and hard the names sounded to me. I suggested “Kellum and Kelly,” which were both quickly rejected, the latter for being a girl’s name. (NB: he’s more progressive now.) In the spirit of compromise, Ken suggested “Kyle” and “Kevin.” That’s when #$t got real.
I felt my throat tighten, my heart harden and my brain spin. I couldn’t do it. Neither of those names would be the name of our son. One was of a man whose actions caused a former client to lose millions of dollars and shutter its doors. The second I was pretty sure was the name of an old acquaintance whose politics were 180 degrees from mine, plus it was most certainly the name that my college boyfriend had just named his son. So just, no, explaining “my reasoning” to Ken. We’d have to figure out some other names.
Now Ken was the one staring in disbelief. I wouldn’t budge. At one point, the words “a man should name his son” actually came out of his mouth. I retorted, somewhat — okay, entirely — childishly: “The person who carries the baby and allows him to enter the world thru her vagina obviously makes the final decision.”
We were getting nowhere fast, except closer and closer to Baby Boy Warner’s birthdate. On the morning of March 13, the contractions started fast and furious. Knowing we had an hour drive to my doctor in NYC, and that our daughter had arrived less than four hours after the contractions started, we headed to the hospital pretty quickly. Attempting to take advantage of the fact that I was in labor, Ken again mentioned names. In response, I called him a whole bunch of unprintable ones, none suitable for naming a baby.
Less than three hours later, Baby Boy Warner had arrived, screaming his lungs out, weighing in at a healthy 8 lbs 2 oz. He was gorgeous, and my husband was solicitous, caring and a lot in awe of what I’d just done to birth this baby. Sensing this was my winning moment, I told him that we had to decide on a name within the next 24 hours, before they released us home. We came up with two names, Kieran and Kullan. He felt Kieran was a bit too close to Karen, but had other concerns about Kullan. I liked it because it was the Gaelic version of Cullen and fit well with Kelsey, which also had a Gaelic/Celtic derivation. Kullan also meant “good-looking lad,” which the baby certainly was. And finally, Kullan was the name of kings — and it was here that Ken had his concerns. Although we now lived in Connecticut, and had put down roots there for over three years, we had spent the early years of our marriage living on Long Island. And on Long Island, the pre-eminent grocery chain was named “King Kullen.”
Exhausted, with hormones ablaze, I burst into tears. There was no way on God’s green earth that anyone was going to make a connection between my beautiful newborn child and a Long Island grocery chain. Who would do that? Crazy talk. And we lived in Connecticut, for goodness sake. We weren’t naming him Stop & Shop. We had to name this baby now. Ken, bless him, agreed. Kelsey McCook (my mother-in-law’s birth name) Warner had a brother who had a name: Kullan Trethaway (after my maternal grandfather’s family) Warner.
A few days later, after we had all settled comfortably into our home, two of our dearest friends, Jesse and Betsy, stopped by to welcome our family member to the neighborhood and bring dinner and groceries to the sleep-deprived parents. Exchanging hugs and cooing over the baby, Betsy looked at us and asked, “What did you all name him? You never told us how you sorted it all out!”
Proudly, we told them: Kullan Trethaway Warner. Without skipping a beat, her husband Jesse, blurted out, “Kullan? You mean like King Kullen the grocery store?”
We had forgotten that Jesse and his family had grown up on Long Island. And of course, they had shopped at King Kullen. Ken looked at me. I couldn’t meet his eyes, knowing they’d say something like “see, I told you so.” Murmuring some excuses made up on the spot, Jesse and Betsy left. We weren’t sure if we’d ever see them again.
Kullan is still Kullan and is a handsome lad. Now 18, there was a time he wanted us to call him Max or Danger Warner, but that is another story. Jesse and Betsy are still our dear friends.
And we never shop at King Kullen.