Friday, June 15, 2012

What IS in a Name: Faith of My Fathers

My name is Allan Nathan Davis. I love each root of the family tree—each line of grandparents and ancestors—that leads to me; however, I inherited all three parts of my name from my father’s father’s side of the family. Obviously, there’s the surname Davis: that’s from my dad . . . and his dad . . . and his. Then there’s my middle name Nathan—in honor of the memory of Nathan Davis, the first Mormon convert in the family. I wish I could regale you with legendary adventures or faith-promoting accounts from his life involving snow, famine, disease, or miracles, but Nathan Davis was simply not that kind of Mormon. He joined the church in the 1860s and moved to Utah after the completion of the transcontinental railroad. I am not the stuff of wagons and handcarts; we Davis-es are strictly train people.

Allan Mervin Davis, my paternal grandfather and most immediate namesake, traveled by train from Salt Lake City to Rochester, New York after finishing medical school at the University of Utah. While he moved around quite a bit, especially within Louisiana and Florida, Dr. Allan Davis never returned to Utah. And yet, because my other three grandparents were each converts to the church and all from states on the east coast, I associate my family’s long history of faith and connection to Utah primarily through Allan. He and his wife raised ten children in Florida; seven still live there, my dad included. But for some reason, I think of Utah as the land of my fathers, the seat of my past.

Like me, Allan Mervin Davis grew up in a family of three. Like me, he always wore glasses. Like me, he was restrained and studious from a young age. This set him apart from the very family he raised. In an opposites-attract sort-of-way, my grandmother was a social force, a fortuitous woman whom “outgoing” does not begin to describe. She loved sports, camping, and large social gatherings. Each of their children seemed to inherit her personality. A Davis, by definition, was engaging and rambunctious; except, of course, for the patriarch Allan Davis, a reserved man who went camping and attended sporting events as a supportive father. He preferred to play the piano and listen to recordings of symphonies at home.

As a child, when I expressed disinterest in camping or spending time outside, my parents were quick to indicate that I had stumbled on a similarity with my namesake. When I realized that sports—either playing them or watching them—was not my cup of tea, everyone in my life knew I was my grandfather’s grandson. When adolescence brought both introspective insularity and academic achievement, I seemed to be approaching clone status. Even my faults were his faults: I remember my father telling me one time, “You’re like your Grandpa Davis. Instead of dealing with your anger, you bottle it up until you explode.” The loneliness of adolescence—the moments where you think you are the only one who is not like everyone else—visited me as they did most of us. However, I do recall distinct instances where the pangs of peculiarity were swallowed up in the visage of my grandfather. He wasn’t like everyone else either. He and I were not like others. We were like each other. We were different and alone, together. To be a Davis meant something; to be Allan Davis meant something different.

As anyone might surmise from a family of ten children, I am not the only grandson to bare the patriarch’s name. While I’m the only one who carries it as a first name, I have three cousins who boast it as a middle name. Yet it was not until I was 21 that I learned that my cousins and I were not the sole inheritors of my grandfather’s identity and faith.

When I was 19, I managed to enjoy a short-lived but wonderful romantic relationship with a young woman named Katy. It’s a BYU story old as time: we met, we dated, I missioned, she married. We had not dated for a long time, so there were few illusions of eternal love withstanding all odds and suitors. In fact, she married somebody within six months of my departure. Our friendship continued but the frequency of correspondence diminished after her nuptials. I never learned what her husband’s name was until I completed my mission. But when I did return home, oh how I discovered so many things—the stuff of names, of lives, of faith.

It started with a printed out copy of an electronic version of a wedding invitation. When I stepped off of the plane and into my old bedroom, I found waiting for me a giant three inch folder filled with the emails and letters I had sent home over the last two years. Tucked in the back flap of the binder hid the print out announcing Katy’s marriage. Apparently, my mom not only archived the communication she maintained with me, but also the one she kept with my former girlfriend. I imagined the invitation was sent as part of their correspondence, a polite formality in deference to our previous relationship. However, a simple word printed on the invitation, one little name, dismantled that assumption and opened the eyes of my understanding to an intricate multigenerational web of individuals and friendship bound together neither by fate nor the cosmos, but by intimate acts of adoption.

Aesthetically, the invitation appeared simple, generic, nondescript. Certainly, the medium of a quick computer print-out diminished what elegance lay in its design. Standard information regarding the time and the location of the wedding and the reception stood off to the right of a single photo of the happy couple. Amidst this traditional fare which named the parents of the betrothed and presented details in a semi-cursive font, the invitation was more than “pleased to announce the marriage of Kathryn Michelle Oliver to Thomas Allan Zane.” I stared at her husband’s name and thought, “So, that’s his name . . . Katy Zane . . . well, that’s nice.” And then I looked at it again, “Thomas Allan Zane.” And I thought, “Oh, that’s funny: his middle name is Allan. And it’s spelt the same way I spell it.” Not A-l-a-n or A-l-l-e-n, but A-l-l-a-n, the least common of the three ways to spell Allan in America.

A few days later, I can’t remember what the conversation with my mom was about, but I brought up the quaint and quirky coincidence I had discovered. “Isn’t it strange that Katy married someone whose middle name is Allan, and that he spells it like Grandpa Davis and I do?” That was when my mom—without any appreciation for either her role as an oracle or the grandeur of the revelation she was about to dispense—nonchalantly mentioned, “Oh, yeah. Funny story: he’s actually named after your grandfather.”

What? Excuse me. Can you say that again? “Yeah, his dad, Tom Zane, was friends with your dad and your uncles in high school. When they were at BYU and before you were born, sometimes your dad and I would babysit Tom.” For a while after I found out about this, I would surmise this story by joking that my dad changed my ex-girlfriend’s husband’s diapers. In fact, one friend once retorted, “First you replaced him, then he replaced you.” Ultimately, I realized that the wedding invitation was not addressed to me, the former boyfriend, but to my dad—the friend of the groom’s father from high school and college, the son of Allan Mervin Davis, the son of a man Tom Zane (the older one) named his first born son after.

Over the next few months, I learned about a chapter from my grandfather’s life I never knew. I learned how for one man, Tom Zane, the name “Allan” came to reflect the charity of a converted Christian. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Zane and Davis families both lived in Daytona Beach, Florida. When they were teenagers, Tom Zane developed friendships with two of my uncles and my dad. They invited Tom to play basketball and baseball where they played such sports, to go camping with the scout groups they camped with, to have fun where they had fun. It happened that for the Davis family all of those activities were connected to the LDS Church. Eventually, by his senior year, Tom Zane learned enough about the church that he decided he wanted to join. This decision prompted Tom’s parents to disown him. They did not want him living in their home. This decision prompted Allan Mervin Davis to adopt him. My grandparents took the recent convert into their home, fed him, disciplined him, and provided some financial support when he decided to serve a mission.

Adoption was not alien to the Davis household. I always knew that my dad was from a family of ten kids. My grandparents raised five kids and then they adopted five more. Though, unlike my aunts and uncles of the second batch, Tom Zane’s “adoption” was less official. He helped constitute a third batch of four or five kids who Allan Davis and his wife cared for. Kids who were friends of the Davis kids from school, work, or church. Kids who needed shelter from the world and found it under Allan’s roof. Kids who grew into adults and counted my grandfather’s name blessed. Tom served a mission, moved to Utah, went to BYU, found a wife, had a child, and named the child after himself and after Allan. I found out about this between June and August of 2007. By October, when I was living in Utah, I visited the family of another man connected to my family in a similar way. My grandparents were in town as well and we all had dinner together. I cannot describe the surreal sensation which washed over me as I watched and heard a man I never previously met or knew about hugging my grandfather and calling him “Dad.”

“Allan Davis” is a testament of faith. It signifies service, bereft of pride, and sacrifice—pure and sanctifying. It literally calls to mind the biblical James’ creed of true religion. It embodies fatherhood in its noblest possibilities and permutations. It represents the best that is in us, not simply as a body of believers but as collective human family. It is a legacy for Thomas Allan Zane, my cousins, and me—a heritage we were born into; one we should strive to live up to. “Allan Davis” means more than the sum of its parts: it is a witness of the abundant life worn out in diligent observance of the principles and ordinances of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.

Due to the length of this entry, I have decided to break it into three parts. You can find Part Two here. and Part Three here. Though I'm not sure why you'd want to skip straight to Part Three without first reading Part Two but if that's a choice you want to make, I leave that up to you.