Jennifer Graham

The rise and fall of Jennifers

Once synonymous with youth, a popular name shows signs of aging

By Jennifer Graham
January 13, 2011

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OUR WAITRESS was named Jennifer, and at some point between the soup and the salad, she’d eavesdropped on the conversation enough to learn that it is my name, too.

“Wow!’’ she chirped. “I never met anyone your age named Jennifer before!’’

The poor child probably never figured out why she got such a lousy tip. Note to wait staff everywhere: It’s never wise to suggest that the person paying the check is somewhat long in the tooth.

Nonetheless, the kid was right. At 48, I am rather old for a Jennifer. When my mother named me, her babysitter said, “That sure is a strange name.’’ And it was, at the time. Until then, Mary, Lisa, and Linda had prevailed.

But Jennifer was sneaking up on them. By 1969, when Lopez and Aniston were born, it was the third most popular name in the United States. Then the “Love Story’’ movie came out and Jennifer rocketed to No. 1, where she remained until 1985, when ousted by upstart Jessica.

No matter. By then, the nation was littered with Jennifers, so much that the name had become synonymous with youth and vacuity. There was even a book about us: Barbara Gordon’s “Jennifer Fever,’’ published in 1989, which endeavored to explain why so many middle-age men become obsessed with gauzy young Jennifers. Gordon told People magazine that she chose the name because Jennifers are “not scarred’’ and they have “youth and bounce and malleability.’’

But that was 20 years ago, and now, alarmingly, we appear to be dying. I realized this a few months ago, when scanning the obituaries. There, among the Janets, was a notice announcing services for a Jennifer who lived in Malden. I didn’t know her, but the name jumped out at me, and I felt a wave of sorrow and empathy for the passing of someone so young.

Then, it struck me: This was the first time I had seen a Jennifer in the obituaries. Annas and Barbaras and Dorises have been dying for years; their names belong on these pages. Jennifers don’t fit there. They belong in the bridal announcements or on the sports pages.

I searched the archives for other Jennifer obituaries. To my horror, there were six. Looking over them, reading about where I should have sent flowers for these formerly bouncy and malleable young women, kindled in me a sick sense of doom.

The promise of the Jennifers, after all, was immortality. The idea that a Jennifer could wrinkle or die — or, even more shockingly, die in droves — betrays our culture’s highest values: youth, beauty, and sex with people who look like children.

Although I’m a first-generation Jennifer, I’d always figured I had at least another 30 good years. I run, and my blood pressure is excellent. As the T-shirt says, my VO2 max is higher than yours.

But if Jennifers are dying, the end must be nearer than I think. It’s like the birthday card that shows a hooded grim reaper, scythe in hand, in a car’s side mirror, with the caption, “Objects in this mirror are closer than they appear.’’

Upon further inspection of the obituaries, however, I realized that most of the dearly departed Jennifers were young, at least to moldly ol’ me. Several, tragically, fell to cancer; others passed “unexpectedly’’ with no cause of death given. There have been elderly Jennifers who died of natural causes, like the actress Jennifer Jones, who died last year. But contrary to my initial fears, there are no mass extinctions of Jennifers, not yet.

But they’re coming. Jennifers in the mirror are closer than they appear.

And, not to worry all you Jessicas, but you are next, my dears.

Jennifer Graham is a writer who lives in Hopkinton.