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IF YOU THINK NAMES DON’T MATTER, YOURS ISN’T MILDRED

My name is Mildred and I am socially inept.  You may think those are two completely separate points, but I do not.  Having carefully considered the matter during moments spent alone — and being socially inept I have a lot of those — I’ve decided that the first, my name, is for the second essentially to blame.

I come from a family of many names that are either unique or simply out of fashion today.  For example, my maternal grandfather’s dad was Morris, and his mother Bertha Mae.  He had a sister-in-law named Ada and a sister who went by Mim but who was also really another Mildred (the circumstance of her likewise seeking out an alternative moniker all those decades ago, incidentally, strongly makes me question whether the now clearly accursed “Mildred” truly ever was in fashion).  Aunt Mim’s husband was Augustus, who wisely salvaged a better existence by going through life as Bub.  But then again, weighing Bub against Augustus, I’m not sure just how great his life was after all.

In saying all of this, I realize, of course, that I’m hardly the first person in history to contend with the discomfort of a less than beautiful name.  For example, in his book Why Do Catholics Do That, Kevin Orlin Johnson lists a string of “remarkable characters” known as Abbo, Benzo, Boso, Lioba and “the man with the most unfortunate name in history, Wipo.  It was pronounced Veepo,” Johnson points out, “but somehow that doesn’t help.”

Of course, many of these people were native European members of tribes first encountered by St. Benedict in the 6th Century.  And although they were then barbarians whom the “civilized” invaders had been unable to dislodge, those named above became monks and nuns who went on to become highly respected members of the Catholic faith.

What accounts of these individuals fail to mention, however, is that both before and after their conversions, they were a people set apart from the “normal” citizens of the world by their antisocial behavior.  And while both stages of their life may be passed off historically as a circumstance of their own choosing, once more I remind you of the link between my own social ineptitude and the manner in which someone else chose for me to be addressed.

Maybe their names weren’t wholly responsible for the places these people occupied in the world, but I’m pretty certain of one thing:  they didn’t help.

Anyway, to return to the 20th Century and my own experience, let’s look at my father’s side of the family.  His name was Charles — or so he said, which would make it by far the most normal of the lot, but his father was Cyrus, his mother Idolyn and although from what he told us it seems his siblings all had regular names like his, the fact that he never contacted them during my lifetime has me convinced he gave them aliases and avoided them just because he didn’t want to admit relation to Tiberius, Hortense and/or Albertine…

My mother is Corrine, a variant of her mother’s mother’s Cora.  My mother’s mother, a third cousin (whose husband’s name was Melvin if you can imagine) and who knows how many other female relatives lurking in her family tree were also Mildred, and so it was my grandmother’s influence that won me the blessed awful luck of being afflicted with it, too.  Of course, her attempt to counter what I suspect she as well considered a misnomer was to dub herself Midge.  But, in considering Midge better than Mildred I refer you once again to my assessment of the differences between Augustus and Bub.

Moreover, since misery loves company — which is probably the real explanation behind the great number of Mildreds to precede me — I suspect as well that adding yet another sufferer to this distinguished sorority accounts in greater part for my grandmother’s use of her influence in “gracing” me with the name than does any hope of achieving her own immortality.  However, having done so, I assure you that at least as long as I live she will never be forgotten.

But, of course, in my case this whole name business in general prompts little more than mild dismay.  In other members of my family, the misnomers have caused full-blown depressions.  For example, look at poor Hundley, who wasn’t technically a relative, but sort of an adopted son of my mother’s dad.  He killed himself when I was eight and I asked if the reason he’d done it was his name. My family looked at me in pretended shock and stoutly asserted no.  I still think they lied.

I think all the years of people trying to find ways around it finally took their toll — years of being known as Hun or summoned as “Hey Hundl” or deciding Bub was useless.  Whatever the specifics, my family can cover all they want.  I know.

But until I went to school I didn’t and it was really all okay. After all, for whatever the reason, there were plenty of other Mildreds in the family and when they introduced me that way nobody ever blinked an eye. Only then I got on that big yellow bus that took me to the prison-like brick building where a very fat principal with a very smarmy smile waddled over and called me Millie.  I wasn’t yet old enough to know what the vulgar expression “dumb-blonde” meant, and besides my hair is brown, but either way I knew he was addressing my face and body but not me.  I spent the next six years mostly avoiding him.

Then came junior high and German class where everyone got assigned an appropriate German name — generally the equivalent of theirs in English.  That idea seemed okay — in my case maybe even good — right up until the moment that I got assigned Mathilda.  The same day I switched to French. Apparently the French teacher knew why, and he called me nothing but Mademoiselle the whole rest of the year.  Boy I loved that guy.  Maybe that’s why I married a man named Andre.

Anyway, after high school I thought all the name stuff was behind me.  I was entering the real world where things like names didn’t matter.  Adult to adult, I could introduce myself however I pleased and it would be respected.  And with this newfound sense of almost giddy freedom, I decided to become Mil — short, easy to pronounce, no-nonsense.

Not quite.

I tried it a few times.  “Pleased to meet you, Gail.  I’m Mil.”

 “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that — hope you feel better tomorrow.  But what’s your name?”

“Mil,” I calmly repeated, my voice wavering ever so slightly.

A blank look.

Utter defeat.

“It’s short for Mildred,” I added in a mumble.

“Oh!  I see,” she laughed.  “I thought you said you were ill!”

A faint chuckle.  A brief smile.

“I am now.”