Spotlight on Great Grandmother Names: Helen

Reader Emily graciously shared the story of her great-grandmother, and her name Helen. Helen was a name I had planned to spotlight for some time. Therefore Emily’s story about her great-grandmother couldn’t have come at a better time. Helen was one of our astrological names and has origins in Greek mythology.

Helen has a no-frills, no-nonsense sophistication like Claire and Anne. With the exception of Claire, most modern parents fail to appreciate this style. As Emily mentions below, most parents overlook Helen today, yet for nearly 20 years, between 1900 and 1919 Helen held the number two girl name spot. Helen was in the top 10 from 1891 to 1935. That’s impressive.

I am so honored that Emily shared the story about her great-grandmother. She sounds like a lovely woman.

Kelly’s Great Grandmother Helen as a small child.

Emily’s Great Grandmother’s Name: Helen

Ask a parent today if they would name their baby girl Helen, and the likely answer would be no. It’s too frumpy or too old lady. Mom and Dad prefer Ella or Lena. Helen is grandma’s name, and Mom and Dad just can’t see it on their little girl. But when my great-grandmother was born in 1926, Helen was the fourth most popular girl’s name in America. Last year, in 2011, Helen ranked at #427. Helen has long been a name that connotes beauty; Helen of Troy was said to have been so beautiful that she was “the face that launched a thousand ships.” According to Nameberry, Helen is of Greek origin and means “bright, shining one.” What a fitting meaning it is for my great-grandmother.

Helen was the second of eleven children born to two young farmers shortly before the beginning of the Depression. There is no story behind her name; it is just the name her mother chose for her. Helen grew up in rural Alabama, and her childhood was hard and grueling. At just three years old she was helping her mother full-time with household chores, and distinctly remembers crawling through rows of cotton as a small child and picking cotton until her fingers were raw.

My great-grandmother was the only girl in her family for eleven years; she had six brothers before she had a sister. Naturally she was a tomboy and loved to swim and play basketball with her brothers. However, with a misogynistic father, her boyish ways were unacceptable and as punishment he would make her scrub his and her brothers’ overalls on the washboard until her knuckles bled. The only thing Helen was allowed to excel and be good at was school. She was very good at arithmetic and won every school spelling bee she entered. My great-grandmother was a beautiful little girl with a head full of red curls, but to this day she can’t stand to look at pictures of herself as a child because “I never got to wash my hair and Daddy always told me I was ugly.” In addition to the abuse she endured from her father and hard labor she did on the farm, Helen also helped her mother raise ten brothers and sisters.

After WWII, Helen moved away from the family farm to work in the textile mills on the Chattahoochee River. There she met my great-grandfather Daniel, and they were married in 1948. Helen and Daniel raised two children and worked in the mills until they retired. Each morning, Helen woke up before sunrise to make breakfast for the family, which always included her famous buttered biscuits. After Helen came home from the mill there was housework to be done, and most nights my great-grandmother did not get to sleep until late at night. The family was very poor, and the house did not have indoor plumbing until the 1960s. My Grandmother and Great Uncle remember well the tribulations of an outhouse.

In the 1980s great-grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer, which she battled and survived without a single complaint. I have always admired my great-grandmother for being such a strong woman. After all she has been through in her (almost) eighty-six years, she is still quite the character. She has the best sense of humor and loves to talk, laugh, and tell stories. When you visit my great-grandmother, she will always come to the door and welcome you with a hug and a smile. She is always happy to see you and always full of spunk and mischief. That silly, playful tomboy she was as a child is still there. She only occasionally leaves the house since my great-grandfather died in ’08, but there are three places she will always go: church, the beauty salon, and Krystal’s.*

*I asked Emily to elaborate more on Krystal’s since I was not that familiar with the chain having lived in the North East my entire life. Emily added, “They’re famous for their tiny square hamburgers. My great-grandparents worked there when they were in their late teens/very early twenties, and that is where they met. That is why Krystal’s is so significant to my great-grandmother.”

My great-grandmother also loves a good Papa John’s thin crust pepperoni pizza.

Surrounding her arm-chair is a swarm of family photos, all facing toward her chair. If you ask her why the photos are arranged that way, my great-grandmother will tell you it is because she loves us and likes to be reminded of all the blessings God has given her. My great-grandmother has two children, four grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and many other relatives and friends. Believe me when I say we all love and treasure her dearly.

Many people never get to know their great-grandparents. I feel so very lucky to have had seventeen years to know what a strong, loving, witty, intelligent, brave, determined, and independent woman my great-grandmother Helen is. Bright and shining she is indeed.

Emily is a high school student and avid name nerd. Her interest in names began when she was a very small child and used her mother’s baby name book to give full names to every doll and stuffed animal she owned. Her other interests include genealogy, art, and writing.

Readers: If you would like to share the story behind your great-grandparent’s name, please feel free to contact us. Your submission could be featured as guest post on Upswing Baby Names. We are thrilled to receive photos, but please note that we will not publish recent photos of living great-grandparents for privacy reasons.  For living great-grandparents we suggest childhood or young adulthood photos. If a photo is not submitted, we will search Flickr for a photo relevant to the name.

Photo credit: Kelly’s personal photo.


  1. I may be one of the few who much prefer Helen to Helena – all the Helens I’ve ever known are quite the characters, and that really makes me love the name.

  2. Helen is my husband’s grandmother’s name and I think it’s lovely. Love the meaning too!

  3. Angela, was there a reason you posted my name in the beginning as Kelly rather than Emily? 🙂

    This is the first time I’ve been “published”, I suppose you could say, and my how it’s strange seeing something I wrote on another person’s blog. Again, thanks for deciding to share the story!

    • OMG Emily! I have no idea why I made that mistake. I’m sorry. Being a name person I’m usually conscientious about getting names right. When I majored in Communications in College, one reoccurring bit of advice was to never get names wrong. I can’t believe I did that. I fixed it now.

  4. We are naming our 2nd child due 11/2/12 Helen…it is not a family name, until now! My husband and I are very happy with such an elegant lovely name!


  1. […] every generation. There is great-grandmother Helene (one of my readers submitted the story of her great-grandmother’s name Helen), grandfather Richard, moms, Amanda and Melissa, and children Olivia and Isaac. Some of these are […]

Speak Your Mind