Some names are nicer than others
Why do we name our babies before they are born? Before we know their character traits, individual personalities, propensities and proficiencies?
Prior to marrying a man with a surname prone to misspellings and mispronunciations — Malarney, Mulineri, Marinara and Manicotti — my legal name was Lisa Smith. I never particularly identified with the name. It seemed common, fleetingly trendy, too milquetoast for my unique persona. Lisa was the most popular baby name in 1966, the year of my birth, and according to census data, Smith has long been the most common surname in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. If that weren’t enough to make me feel utterly ordinary, during college I had to be identified by my social security number because there was another Lisa Smith in my class.
The lack of panache in my birth name made me particularly susceptible to nicknames. My own mother, the person who picked my name in the first place, called me Dee Dee Dumpling during my early childhood. I never knew why, but perhaps she felt it was a better fit than my legal name. Even though the cutesy alliteration smacked of fat-shaming, I had to admit, it described me to a T.
My brother’s motivation for nicknaming me was less to describe than to humiliate. His standard was “Pig,” but when my parents, who could no longer stand my incessant whining, forbade the insult, he cleverly reversed it to “Gip” and the whining continued. When the boy across the street and I were about seven, my brother found out that we were taking our shirts off and touching our bellies together. My brother seized the opportunity to assign me a “stripper” name — Bubbs MacGraw — and blackmailed me for years with the threat of telling our parents about my secret belly-touching rendezvous.
After a family trip to Hawaii, my brother called me Lee Lae Lon, which sounded pleasant enough until he taught our entire bus to chant it on the way to school. His other epithets included Chunky Dinners, Chung King, Skunk, and Skunkgrass, all demeaning by design.
In middle school, I met another Lisa, and our friends referred to us as “La One” and “La Two.” Of course, I was La Two, which played right into my inferiority complex. In high school, my best friend Patti Frankovich and I dreamed of life outside of our Western Pennsylvania working class town, so we made up names that might imply affluent pedigrees. When we met boys while skiing or at the beach, Patti became Claire Taylor, and I, Brooke Townsend — just two Connecticut prep school girls on vacation. My discount department store wardrobe was probably a dead giveaway, but we enjoyed those moments of false refinement nonetheless.
During my first job out of law school, I was assigned to an engineering malpractice case involving a Pittsburgh sewage treatment facility. As the junior attorney, I had to attend depositions and document searches, which were done on site at the plant. Anyone driving near one of these facilities knows the foul stench of raw sewage that I was subjected to on a regular basis. It permeated my dry-clean-only suits, hair, briefcase and car. After a month or so of arriving back at the law firm feeling like I needed to be bathed in acid or set on fire, my colleagues gave me the unfortunate moniker Sister Sludge.
A few years and many showers later, I met Francis, my future husband. He called me Sunflower while we were in that lovey-dovey stage when schmaltz knows no bounds. But after the reality of marriage, parenting and military life took hold, we were both too embarrassed to acknowledge the corny pet name from our initial courtship, preferring to go with the boring but conveniently monosyllabic, Hon.
However, there is one name in my checkered history that has always been a perfect fit. It’s shared by more than two billion people, but somehow makes me feel special. I’m proud that three people in this world will forever call me “Mom.”