Saturday, November 25, 2023

One Must Have a Name


“In this world one must have a name; it prevents confusion, even when it does not establish identity." -- Ambrose Bierce

I have been thinking about names, our names I mean, not just the names of things. (Thanks, Adam.) And I don't mean surnames or names in the old world sense of a Name with a capital N. I can't imagine why anyone still cares if you are in fact an indirect descendent of Wilda, Princess Royal of Knuckleball-Streusal-Top or that your great, great, great grandpa carried the tent-spikes of Confederate Major General Gideon Pillow at the Battle of Little Cat Box. The only thing more boring than ancestry frankly is someone eager to explain it at dinner. No, I'm thinking of names as something altogether more common.

I realized the other day that as the parents of my generation pass away, I may well be the last person to call certain grown people of my long acquaintance by the diminutives under which I first met them. It was very much a fact of my time that all the boys rather lazily named for The Apostles became in my childhood Petey, Jimmy, Johnny, Andy, Taddy, Matty, Tommy, Simon and Phil -- and I don't remember a Simon or a Phil (and be honest, how often have you remembered those Apostles, Simon and Philip, outside of Sunday School?)  As a Brad and or Bradley, I was something of an anomaly. All of my little friends had diminutives.  True of some of the girls too. I know at least one distinguished professor of French and French Literature who I'll call "Becky" and who recently informed me on social media I may be the last person on earth not to call her either Rebecca, Professor, or "Mom." Could name an equal number of other "girls" I still think of as Katie, Betty, Kathy, or Kimmy. Seems the whole Baby Boom ended pretty consistently in a "Y." 

Until I was grown my father affectionately called me "Shorty." My mother and protector who knew me better always called me by my name and only used "Bradley Richard" when I was insufferable -- which was not infrequent. Some years ago, when my father lay dying, he woke one night while I sat beside him in the dark and called to me by my old nickname. I don't remember what I answered, only that I did and that as I did the last light of my childhood guttered and died and somehow that was of course heartbreaking but also fitting and right.

My parents' names, Jerry and Stella, despite having other more famous folk associated with either, will never mean anyone other than Dad and Mum to me, particularly when mentioned as they usually were for better than sixty years in one breath. 

Other names are just as clear, and more universally recognizable. Cher. Madonna. Groucho, Harpo, Chico, sometimes Zeppo, and even less frequently Gummo.


I'm not really old enough to feel any particular way about the insipid Debbie Reynolds hit song with that name -- "The  old hootie owl hootie-hoots to the dove / Tammy, Tammy, Tammy's in love" -- and I don't really remember the hit movie or the three sequels (!) with I think -- Sandra Dee, was it? 

Not my Tammy.

For me there will only ever be the one. Only Tammy who comes always first to mind is now, has been, and will always be Wynette. (Rest in power, Ms. "Tammy" Virginia Wynette Byrd Chapel Jones Tomlin Richey.) That's my Tammy. In country music they hand out titles like old Italian aristos looking to marry off their useless nephews and unload their decayed palazzos. Everybody not born yesterday is a Country Music "legend" or worse, "royalty" -- which is just silly on the face of it. Real royalty hasn't had hair 'at high in three hundred years and that Charles III never wore nothing near so nice as a Mr. Nudie suit. Now jazz had just the one Duke and the one Count and the first Earl to come to mind will always be Gardner, but Klugh would also be an acceptable answer. Whereas Country Western music must have had at least three Queens and half again as many Mothers, etc. I love them all, them ladies, but Tammy was the One. No one better personified the ache of our Pennsyltucky soundtrack when I was a boy. Beyond the song everybody knows about Standing By your piece-o'-shit-no-account-mean-as-a-wet-rooster-cousin-husband, Tammy sang every song a sad and or sassy gal could need: from I Don't Want to Play House, Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad, to Something to Brag About, to say nothing of her D. I. V. O. R. C. E. And with her sometime husband and the greatest Country singer of all goddamn time, Mr. George "Possum" Jones, Tammy sang every love story from Golden Rings to We're Gonna Hold On (which they sadly very much did not.)  Miss the fucked up pair of 'em still.

The only other Tammy to come to mind will always have the two names, Tammy Faye, like all those other double and triple named belles before and since, like Peggy Sue or Norma Jean or that nice lil' Laura Jeanne Reese Witherspoon. With her first husband and down-low-friend-of-Dorothy Jim Baker, Tammy Faye was a joke and scandal and the very personification once of greedy, golden-calf worshipping, Evangelical, prosperity gospel, snake oil television vulgarity, and dumb as a goat playing checkers, bless her heart. (That runny mascara! That goosey vibrato! That paint-by-numbers mug! And those horrible, nightmarish puppets!) But then Tammy Faye talked on-air to a gay man with AIDS and was briefly the personification of kindness and sympathy. Remember that? That was confusing. And then after The Fall, it turned out that once Tammy Faye was free from the moral sinkhole of her closeted husband, she actually had a very good heart and a surprisingly wide view. Actually got be very fond of that messy bitch. And when she died? Who knew we would shed a tear over her?! But we did, and not just Jim Jay Bullock but nearly the whole lot of us sentimental old things. Tammy Faye?! Still miss that little confidence drag pixie for Jeebus.

Not so much Jan. Remember Jan?

For some of us that name doesn't conjure the middle sister on the Brady Bunch, but rather that human haystack of pink wigs and mop-lashes, Jan (Janice Wendell) Crouch, Know her? She and her Assemblies of Gawd-awful golf-hustle husband Paul ruled the Trinity Broadcast Network. That circus was actually founded by the Bakers, as was Pat Robertson's fief, by the way. And like Robertson, the Crouchs kept their boondoggle going years after the Bakers' PTL empire got sold for parts. One may have to have had a trailer park somewhere in one's family-line to remember the Queen of TBN. Some of us will never entirely shake her. Stuff of nightmares. Jan made Tammy Faye look like Georgia O'Keefe. Picture Dolly Parton drawn by a five year old with neon magic-markers. Jan was Tammy Faye without good gay friends. Jan was Tammy Faye with considerably less ruth. Among the things Jan had that Tammy Faye lacked -- besides a long if creepy marriage -- Jan hilariously had an Honorary Doctor of Humane Lettres from the Oral Roberts University, which is just like having a chocolate souffle from a gas-station vending machine. Also unlike Tammy Faye, Jan was about as bright as a pit-bull and far likelier to maul anyone who got too close to the bookkeeping, or her wig budget, or the actual state of the charity missions she flew to on her private plane. Her husband Paul was supposedly the preacher in the family (as the God of the Smug Literalists, as you doubtlessly know, ordains only persons with penises.) Paul dressed like a casino pimp, talked like a carny, and had all the charisma of  tax-attorney. It was really that technicolor tornado of false hair, fake boobs, crocodile tears, and blinding white veneers, Jan who kept the ballyhoo going day after grinding day. It was Jan who was under constant threat from demonic forces and liberal journalists. My land, the woman almost died hundreds of times! She sang, she cried, she begged, she gave dolls that looked just like her to mystified African children. I would miss her too if she hadn't been such a poisonous presence on televisions across my youth. The pair's been dead for a long time now, but the mortifying legacy of  their brand of charismatic clown show also left lasting scars on the body politic among other horrors. (Their own granddaughter sued them after her rape at TBN was covered up.) The youngest Crouch boy, Matt now runs the considerably reduced empire and hosts with his own shaggy blond, Laurie, but she ain't no Jan, sure enough. Wouldn't even look up if you saw them buying the big jug of Ranch Dressing at the Walmart.

I wish I could forget Jan Crouch.

So some names kinda get ruined. Sorry, potentially harmless baby Adolf. You have bad parents. 

Other names, often fictitious, like Ahab, Sherlock, Scout, Jem, Dill, and Atticus aren't so much spoiled as made a bit embarrassing after attaining specific immortality, a bit like calling a new baby Beyonce now, or naming your dog Rin Tin Tin. Really? Who can live up to such a name?! Terrible idea.

Buddy and Sook are two other such for me -- not spoiled or even so very famous but very specifically characters I can't see anywhere but in the story I read every Christmas time. Well, that's not strictly true. I do have an old friend who calls me "Buddy" like we're in a black and white road picture or riding the rails between Hoovervilles, so maybe there's nothing quite so distinct there, but Sook? None other. 

And rereading that story yet again, I am reminded not just of those names but of the above referenced novel by Truman Capote's great friend, Harper Lee. It would seem that immortality ain't all it ever was nowadays. Much to the shock and chagrin of the generation who once had a "Y" at the ends of their names, my generation, younger readers it seems have little need of fictional little white children to explain racism to them anymore and little or no use for Atticus Finch. (I'll let you all catch your breath.) I fear the day may come when certain aspects of my favorite American Christmas story will soon enough condemn it to a similar fate. If and when it does, those new readers will not be wrong. Don't be upset. I imagine I'll be gone by then. Maybe not. We'll see. Meanwhile I'll go on with it. There will be other books, other authors, other stories as good as these. We needed these. Our children and grandchildren may not.

It is a loss I already knew something of, having long since abandoned recommending A Dissertation on Roast Pork, by Charles Lamb, or The Merchant of Venice, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or Puddin'head Wilson, by Mark Twain. Do I not now think all of these great? I do still and they are. There are however other books, other novels, other essays, other Shakespeare. There will be other readers. Those that know already do, those who are curious still will find these books without me. My endorsement is not required. 

And no one need like everything I like nor love who and what I love. Neither need you. 

Another thing about names, not the ruined ones that haunt us or the ones we hate, but rather the names we keep with us for comfort, for love, our own and others. There is a numeric value to these as well. I don't mean that mystical bollocks beloved now of the Q cult and the Trumpers. Nope. Just... nope. I mean how many now remember the name? My grandmothers, Lella Belle and Minnie Mae, for example. How many still know those names? A dozen people? Fewer than that? More? How many will remember Truman Capote in one hundred year's time? Who will remember me?

Matters not a whit. Not to me, honestly, and certainly not tonight.  The only numbers, the only names with which I am at this moment concerned are the ones necessary to me, perhaps to us now. Posterity will see to itself. Our only job is not to burn it all down, to love one another, and to read A Christmas Memory again. And when we've finished if you've stayed, tell me your name again, lest I forget.