His face was well-preserved, but the body was so frail. The outline of his ribcage protruded grotesquely against his sunken stomach. He was dead, and he looked it. A warm tear ran down my cheek as I read and re-read the placard standing next to the coffin: “Here lies Dayton Martindale.” I was sad, and I was scared.
I was fifteen years old when my grandfather Dayton died. He was nearly ninety-five, and while he had remained in impressively good health for most of that time, his death did not come as a surprise. But beyond the obvious sadness, it affected me at an unexpectedly personal level. I grabbed a sheet of notebook paper and hastily scribbled a poem called “What’s in a Name?” My parents discovered it on the floor of my room a few days later and were duly touched. I hadn’t seen it in years, although I suspected I’d be embarrassed to read it—I was sure it would be impressively melodramatic. I got the chance to pull it up on my old computer over spring break, and wasn’t disappointed. From the closing stanza: “And so I sit here and write, / So I sit here and cry. / What’s in a name? / I do not know, but I do know / That a name / Is in me.
”Four-and-a-half years later, I think I’m ready for a more sober reflection.
I’ve always liked my name. It’s unique, which fit in wonderfully with a nascent childhood hypothesis that I, too, was unique. I looked upon the five Daniels in my fifth-grade class with a smug pity. I didn’t need any nicknames; I was always simply Dayton. Now, I’ve been called a number of other things—Big D, Daytona 500, Daytonion, Day-Mart, asshole—but never with any consistency. The only exception is my cousin’s eight-year-old daughter, who has been calling me Day-Day since she could barely talk. It’s cute when she does it, but in every other situation I very much like being a Dayton.
Yet you must not think that my life has not been without trials, nomenclature-wise. I cannot count the number of times I have had the following conversation:
“Hi, I’m Dayton.”
“Oh, hello, Jason.”
“No, it’s Dayton.”
“Oh, sorry David.”
I used to try to correct people, but now, oftentimes, I give up. I suppose I could say something about taking such opportunities to make myself memorable through my own merit, despite a ubiquitous name, but the reality is that sometimes I can simply be a lazy conversationalist.
There was also this gem of a misunderstanding I had in ninth grade with my pediatrician:
“Hi Dayton. Are you Dayton?”
“Um, yes.” I was surprised and a little hurt he didn’t immediately recognize me.
“But are you having sex?”
“What? Oh, datin’, I thought you said, nevermind, no, I’m neither dating nor having sex.”
More recently, a friend cryptically informed me that a student in her writing seminar, Mainstreet USA, was writing her paper about me. Only later did I discover that the paper was in fact about the city of Dayton, Ohio, and its embodiment of small-town feminist values.
But for the most part, life as a Dayton Martindale is devoid of confusion—when no one else shares my name (I dominate the Google results, challenged only weakly by a former high school basketball player in Utah), I am confident in the reality that I am Dayton and Dayton is me. Which brings me back to the sign above my grandfather’s corpse.
“Here lies Dayton Martindale.” In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that’s not actually what the placard said. It was actually “Here lies Dayton ‘Marty’ Martindale” (my grandfather went predominantly by that nickname, one which I have never used and in all likelihood never will), and to be honest it probably used language a little less ominous than “Here lies”—it wasn’t the gravesite, after all. But the moment I saw it I made the conscious decision to read it as “Here lies Dayton Martindale.” I forced myself to face the reality that Dayton Martindale could die just as easily, just as permanently as anyone else.
In that moment I imagined the body as my own, eighty, ninety, one hundred years into the future. Gathered here were family and friends whose words and demeanor told me everything I needed to know: Dayton Martindale was a good man, loved, respected, admired. This man had had a profound impact on them, and all I could think was: would I have the same? As I had written a few days previously: “I doubt there was some secret / of being named Dayton / he could’ve told me. / But I sure wish I could’ve asked.”
I had never really thought deeply about my own mortality before. At the time I still had a vague belief in the Christian afterlife, but standing over that body I wasn’t thinking about heaven. All that was left of my grandfather was what lived on in those he had affected. I personally did not know him well—he had lived in the state of Washington, the whole height of the country away from my SoCal world. My family would make the northward trek on occasion, but I was young and many memories have faded. So my impression of him does not come from him; it comes from my father.
Specifically, I think of two phrases my dad would commonly employ throughout my youth, tongue firmly planted in his cheek. The first, an absurd empty threat directed at the slightest hint of misbehavior: “Don’t make me come over there and land on you.” The second, a hopeful post-dinner inquiry: “What’s for dee-sert?” But I suspect that my grandpa survives in more than these few words. I am sure the traits of my dad, my aunts, my uncles, and my cousins reflect, consciously or not, their time spent with my namesake. It’s comforting to think that, in one sense, he’s not completely gone.
As for me, I was given the welcome burden of carrying on his name. The fact that my parents named me after my grandpa suggests that they saw him as an admirable figure, that he had set a standard worthy of aspiring to (following the same logic, I plan on naming my children Aragorn and Spider-Man). From time to time I get an over-romanticized notion as to the nature of this responsibility, the idea that any personal lapse in character would somehow sully his name. I’m not sure I’ve ever fully articulated this before, even to myself, but I do feel an obligation to my father and to the rest of my family to uphold the integrity of Dayton Martindale. And well, I’d say I’m doing all right.
But Dad, if you ever think I’m dropping the ball, feel free to come on over here and land on me.