Brooklyn Boro

A Boy Named Wilhelmina: ‘It was once the name of a Queen’

February 19, 2021 William A. Gralnick

Naming a baby can be as easy or difficult as you make it. Name the child after a beloved relative gone to a greater reward or buy a book, yes a book, that has hundreds more suggestions than all the children even born into your family. My parents chose the first route. My paternal grandfather was named William. Already there was a problem. Two boy, my fathers and my uncles, were born very close together. I was one of the two.

Both men loved their father and wanted to honor him by naming their son William. My uncle, who was the youngest of the five children got the first shot. My dad was not to be died so we now had two Williams. A peace conference was held. My cousin, six months older than I would be called William. I would be formally named William but called Bill. It became so ingrained that if you called me William or he Bill we often reacted as if you’d called us Fred and Harry. Here is a peek in the backstage of the naming.

With apologies to Johnny Cash and his ode to “A Boy Named Sue” that song could have been me. One day, in one of her many cross—a popular term in the 50s for “pissed off”—days my mother was pining away at the awfulness of her not having had a daughter. That, of course, triggered a “what’s so bad about a second son?” feeling that overcame me. “In fact,” she went on, “the only reason you were born was because your brother was a boy.” I believed it.

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My dad had told me once that my mother was a high-strung, nervous mother. My brother had colic and one day it was so severe that he didn’t stop wailing. It had gone on for hours. When my father came home from work he found her in a state of hysteria—not the laughing kind. He pulled all of the tricks out of his dental psychology bag. None worked so he smacked her across the face (a popular remedy in the 50s). That worked.

Back to the story.

“If you had been a girl you would have been named Wilhelmina,” she said, as if she had said, “If you had been a girl you would have been named Ellen or Sue.” But she didn’t. She said, Wilhelmina.

WILHELMINA?!?! Egad! I had never heard that name, ever. It was weird and ugly. A life as a Wilhelmina would have been hell, even if I had been a girl. I did know a Willianna, but she was black and from South Carolina and already at least as old as my mother. I could sort of see her going through life unharmed as Willianna. Me as Wilhelmina? Uh-uh.

It was a mere accident of genetics that saved me, and the power of Jewish tradition that almost ruined me.

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It is tradition in Ashkenazic Judaism to name a child after a deceased family member one wants to memorialize. Some say you start at the beginning of the line, someone who died the longest ago whose name hadn’t been used or was of such family import that it would be re-used. Some say you begin at the end of the line with the name of the most recently deceased. Some say you don’t have to use the actual name, just the first initial and still others say you can do it with the Hebrew name rather than the English one. What everyone says is there are no Jr’s or 3’rds—except, of course, the Sephardi Jews, and also that small number of Jews who so admire gentile social culture that they think having a Jr. or a 3rd in the ranks would be cool and also helpful to the child as he/she navigates the business world.

Of course, just to show you the pitfalls of generalizing about Jews, I did know a Schwartz who was a Jr. and conceived a 3rd. Schwartz is Ashkenazi—Jews whose roots trace from Germany and Eastern Europe. Sephardim are those whose roots stem from the great expulsion from Spain in 1492 (and you thought that was a year only Italians and American Indians) took note of that date. Many went to the Middle East so Spain, Africa (yes Virginia, there were Jews in Africa—still are, and not all of them are white either), and the Middle East are the petri dishes for Sephardic Judaism.

But I stray. So, from whence almost came Wilhelmina? My dad was one of five: three boys, two girls. His dad, whom he called Pop, was named William or “Velvel” (its Yiddish equivalent). At least two of the brothers, my father being one, idealized Pop. As I said, they both wanted to name their kids after him, but Mamma died first and my dad was the oldest boy. He had a boy as his first child so he honored his mother, Jenny, by naming my brother Jeffrey, a name my brother detested and I loved. The next male to come along was my uncle’s son, so he got the William. Then it was my turn. I guess my father figured, “I’m the oldest, I put my brothers through school and set them up in their practices, screw it, I want to name my kid after Pop.” So he did. Hence, along came the second William, me whose William morphed into Billy.

It took me until my late teens to announce that Billy had left the building. I would now be Bill. “Send out the memo,” I informed my mom. Some got it, some didn’t, but by the time I started work, I had pretty much shed it. As fate would have it, my first job was in Atlanta, Ga. the south, where every William is not only Billy but Billy-Something like Billy-Bob or Billy-Joe or Billy-Ray. I thought life brutally unfair and considered shooting myself—or those who again raised the specter of Billy-dom.

I got over it, helped by a transfer to Miami in the state of Florida where it is said the more south you go the more north it comes. Once I passed Orlando, I once again escaped Billy-dom and by the time I hit Miami I was Guillermo (William in Spanish).

Now, to be fair, there have been many Wilhelminas, some even queens, the kind with crowns, like the Queen of the Netherlands. The name itself means “the great protector,” fitting for a queen, and another reason the name didn’t fit me.

In fact, in the 1880s it ranked among the 215 most popular names. On the other hand, it hasn’t cracked the list since 1950s.

There was one Olympic athlete named Wilhelmina, the late great Wilma Rudolph.

And no one else since that I’ve ever heard of—to this day.

Sorry Mom, but hooray for genetics.


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