My husband’s first introduction to members of my extended family was at our high school graduation in 1972. Among others, my Aunt Birdie and my Aunt PeeWee traveled to Oregon from Southern California for the big event.
The two women were as different as night and day. Birdie (who was actually a much older first cousin) was a free-spirited soul who brashly gave 17-year-old Pete a quart of beer as a graduation present. PeeWee (the wife of one of my six uncles) was a faithful Mormon who I’m sure spent the night praying for us when we took off on a co-ed campout.
It wasn’t their disparate personalities that made an indelible mark on Pete, though. Credit that to their nicknames. Birdie was actually Frances. PeeWee was actually Irene. When I began reciting some of the other nicknames of the aunts, uncles and cousins he should someday expect to meet, all he could say was, “It sounds like the seven dwarfs!
OK. I have to admit. The list does sound a bit like Snow White’s whistling troupe of happy jewel miners.
Tuck, Art, Cutie, Rolly, Dopey, Curlie, Ozzie, Buck, Stinky, Snooky, Skippy, Dutch and Micki.
Try applying any sort of logic to match those monikers with Chester, Esta, Carrie, Roland, Helen Mae, Bennie, Raymond, Norman, Keith, Dennis, Tim, Wayne and Karolyn. And those are just the ones I can remember.
Cross my heart. Every one of these nicknames was used regularly; so regularly, in fact, that given names faded into the background. As the youngest of 10 children born over a span of about 20 years, my mother had grown weary of the tradition by the time she was ready to start her own family. She called my father Sam instead of his given name, Earl, but was adamant that none of her three children would ever be referred to by anything other than the names documented on their birth certificates. Although my grandmother’s Indiana upbringing made my name, Laurie, sound like Larie, the family basically complied.
To be fair … and I always like to be fair … Mom wasn’t 100% true to her own rule. She routinely called my brother Jesse Man and My Baby Boy. After we were all grown, she frequently referred to my sister as her O.D.D. (Oldest Darling Daughter) and, when I assumed the role of caregiver, she sometimes called me The Boss. Yet, those references didn’t quite qualify us to hoist a pick ax and sing Heigh-ho, Heigh-ho with the rest of the family prospectors.
Mom’s rejection of colorful nicknames magically disappeared when her own grandchildren and great grandchildren arrived. She didn’t bless every one of them with an alternate title, but she knighted a few with everlasting remembrances. Just before she passed away, she included some on a list of “forget me nots” that she dictated to my sister. The conversation was recounted in a letter my sister sent to me last December.
She wants to make sure Espen doesn’t forget that he is the Espenator or Skyler that he is “My Sweet Boy.” She wants Jesse to remember that he is Mr. Pister.
My son Jesse was the first grandchild to earn a nickname. Pistol, which later evolved into Mr. Pister, fit the bill because he was born with a gunpowder persona and hasn’t really mellowed in 39 years. Maybe he’ll slow down in another decade or two, but right now there is still too much to do, too much to see and too much to learn.
Sweet Boy Skyler, or sometimes Skyler Dyler depending on Mom’s mood, was not technically her first great grandchild but the first she had the opportunity to truly know. A soft-spoken boy, his tender sensibility was so endearing to Mom that she wanted to protect him from the unforgiving world from the day he was born. She was privileged to be the first person my daughter confided in when a plus sign emerged on her pregnancy stick back in 2002, and she honored that by treasuring every minute she spent with him.
Espen came along a couple of years after Skyler and was the polar opposite in terms of both build and personality. While husky, sensitive Skyler was Mom’s sweet boy, daring Espen was her fun, little firecracker. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator and Chris Owens’ Sherminator in the American Pie movies served as the inspiration to turn Espen’s name into the manly designation Espenator.
In her dictated remembrances, Mom didn’t mention the granddaughter she initially wanted us to call Trail Blazer because the Portland Trailblazers won their only national basketball championship just days before she was born in 1977. When my husband and I balked, Mom later attempted to nickname her J.J. because we had christened her Jennifer Joy. The fact that we vetoed Trail Blazer and J.J. didn’t mean the stories were forgotten, however. In fact, they are legendary. My daughter heard them so often that, when she reached the age when kids typically want to establish their own identity, she wished we had listened to Mom and given her a more unusual name.
With her last days closing in around her, Mom’s fuzzy thoughts also floated past the granddaughter who actually did win a nickname. My sister’s dear Rhianna became Rhianna Danna in homage to Gilda Radner’s Saturday Night Live character Roseanne Roseannadanna. Whether her nickname is on the “forget me not” list doesn’t matter, though. It’s not likely she will ever stop cherishing her grandmother’s pet name for her and the special love that is always behind such endearments.
To Mom’s other grandchildren – Rachel, Lucas, Cary and Eddie – Grandma Joy may not have given you (or tried to give you) nicknames but you have titles nonetheless.
Rachel, you were the amazing first of seven grandchildren. Like the Knight of Templar, you are privileged to safeguard the oldest memories of your Grandma Joy. You are one of the original Oompa Loompa Girls and the Princess of Quite a Lot. You know your grandmother passed her crown as Queen of Everything to you. Wear it proudly.
Lucas, with you Grandma Joy got her wish that a child would be named after a member of the 1977 Trailblazer championship team. The late Maurice Lucas was the power forward, and his fierce play earned him the nickname The Enforcer. Remember this as you power through the life changes you’re undertaking. Maurice Lucas led his team to victory. You can, too.
Cary, your Grandma Joy was thrilled when your parents named you after her mother, Carrie Elizabeth Heasman. Your fearless pursuit of a career in music is reminiscent of her courageous spirit. More than a hundred years ago, she followed your Great Grandpop, Noble Cleveland Metzger, from Indiana to the untamed landscape of Montana where they claimed a homestead on some of the last free land ever offered by the United States government. Though it didn’t work out exactly as envisioned, it was a bold move. You embody that same, brave, pioneering character.
Eddie, the youngest of the seven, you were named for rocker Eddie Van Halen. On the off-chance that wouldn’t impress you later on, your Grandma Joy and several other family members engaged in an impromptu brainstorming session at a beachside restaurant one day. Their efforts to remember every famous Eddie in recent history was so hysterical that anyone who wasn’t there (like me) wishes he or she was. Somewhere there is a framed list of all the names tossed about that day. Eddie Albert, Eddie Arnold, Eddie Money, Eddie Murphy, Eddie Rabbitt, Eddie Rickenbacker. The list goes on. You probably have that memento. If you do, keep it. It will always be a fond reminder of one of your Grandma Joy’s favorite stories. You were still just a “baby bump,” but you were the star of the show.
Mom didn’t leave one of her trademark catch phrases for me to use as the foundation for this story. She just wanted her grandchildren and great grandchildren to remember her. That was the reason behind the “forget me not” list that she dictated to my sister. In the absence of a quote from Mom, I will borrow one from Morrie Schwartz. My favorite author, Mitch Albom, shared his words in the powerful book Tuesdays with Morrie.
Death ends a life, not a relationship.
Remember this, Rachel the Queen of Everything, Jesse the Pistol, Jennifer the Trail Blazer, Dear Rhianna Danna, Lucas the Enforcer, Cary the Fearless, Eddie the Star of the Show, Sweet Boy Skyler Dyler, and Espen the Espenator. Grandma Joy will never really die as long as the nine of you keep her alive in your thoughts, in your conversations and in your hearts.