As the firstborn in my family, I was a unique challenge for my parents. Of course there were all the new issues of how to raise a child, but first and foremost, what would they call me? They weighed options, tried to speculate which name would fit whatever personality their new son would have, and, more importantly, had to decide whose legacy I would take on. To a certain extent, they didn’t have a whole lot of say in the matter. As a male, I’d more than likely be keeping my last name for the entirety of my life, so that was taken care of. Now Mom and Dad had two more name slots to fill. I could have been anything. I was nearly called Campbell, a name later given to my younger sister. In nearly the eleventh hour, my parents decided on Thomas Farrell Markham. This is the story of how exactly it went down—how my parents came to arrive at the name I go by today.
Despite this initial parental dilemma, my name appears pretty straightforward. As is the case with many names, at least in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, my name is the sum of many parts that stand in memory of those who came before me. I am a living monument for my predecessors who, in their own various ways, imparted upon me various bits of genetic habits, earthly wisdom, and physical traits.
My first name, Thomas, belongs first to my grandfather, my father’s father, James Thomas Markham. He too goes by the name “Tom Markham” in day-to-day life, so in a way it’s only fitting that I somehow wound up here at Princeton so that I might walk in his footsteps. He was a chemical engineer in the class of 1955. I’m an English major. While I may not be taking the exact same path he took, still the name Tom Markham rings through these grounds once again. The year I graduate, 2015, is also the year of his 60th Reunion, at which point both Tom Markhams will be on Princeton’s campus for a rare time capsule moment of glorious generational collision.
My middle name, Farrell, comes from my grandmother’s maiden name. My father’s mother, Judith Farrell Markham, passed away when my dad was about my age, so I never had the chance to meet her. My middle name, however, is a sort of tangible watermark of her lasting legacy, which is ever present in each one of her grandchildren. In a way, keeping the name Farrell around is an even greater testament to her memory than photographs or passed-down heirlooms, for my grandmother lives on in my name as long as I live. And it makes sense that I should pay the honor of carrying on her name, for, in a roundabout way, I would not be here without her.
Then comes my last name, Markham, which will stay with me wherever I go. With my last name comes great responsibility, as I am the last male on my dad’s side of the family. I am the terminus, the end of the line, of the Markham name. Unless I have a son, the surname Markham will end when I do. Sometimes it feels like the many generations of Markhams are resting on my shoulders. Sounds like a lot of pressure, right? In some ways, I guess it is, but I owe it to the generations of Markhams (and Farrells, and Campbells, and Ayreses, and Pflegers, and Thompsons, and Suttons, et. al) who have come before me. The least I can do is take pride in my name, because without it, who am I? I began, as we all do, nameless and formless, every bit of Locke’s tabula rasa ready to take in and take on the world. So where was I to begin? In an identity crisis that I too will face when I’m a parent, my parents looked to the past, perhaps out of respect for my predecessors, or perhaps because they had nowhere else to turn. It’s nice to have an anchor somewhere, though. That I take my name from those who came before me is reassuring. At the very least I have a starting point. From there, it’s up to me what Tom Markham becomes.