Some can say that they come from a dash of royal heritage, others can claim a background family tree filled with military heroes. Me? I come from a long line of nicknames.
When my parents were youngsters, each had been given a pet family name. Dad was his parents’ first born in 1932, and his mother endearingly always called him Sonny. My mother, born two years later, the fourth child in her family, was called Dimples by her father after a comic book character he enjoyed reading. She is still known as ‘Dimp’ to this day.
When I came along in 1959, I was the fourth daughter. I think they were sort of running out of girl names, and there was no secret that I was “supposed” to have been a boy.
For the first five years of my life, I had two nicknames. Dad called me Jack. My older sisters, who probably saw me as a new doll baby to play with, commented that I just never fussed or cried. They were big fans of a TV show for children at that time called Romper Room.
The ‘good’ kids were called “Do-Bees” and the ‘bad’ kids were called “Don’t-Bees”. Because I was a good baby, I was given the nickname DoBee. Everyone called me that, and it soon ‘stuck’.
I was surrounded by kids with silly names, like brothers known as Twerp and Oink, and I know my parents grew up with friends who they still referred to by two names — their given name and their nickname. Still, it never really occurred to me that Dobee wasn’t my real name. I seemed to see Jack as my nickname, but because everyone, not just my Dad, called me DoBee, I felt sure that was my name.
With a houseful of big sisters, we tended to play school quite a lot. I was taught to sit still at the school desk and chairs that my grandpa had given to us, practicing printing my ABCs and my name.
For Easter of the year before I started school, we were given Bibles with our names inscribed in gold leaf on the cover. My sisters were very excited. I opened the box and looked at my Bible and put the lid back on. There had been a mistake. This was meant to go to some other kid, not me.
“I got the wrong Bible. This doesn’t have my name on it,” I said, handing it back to my mother. “It says ‘J-U-D-I-T-H.’”
It was so foreign to me I didn’t even know how to say it. It took the whole team of sisters to convince me that no one had made a mistake. Judith was my real name, kind of like our cows had numbers in their ears, but we gave them names like “Milky Way” and “Gypsy”.
Then, to make matters worse, they told me I would be starting school in the fall, and would have to start practicing printing that name when we played school, and having everyone call me that.
Also, my sisters stressed, I would have to wear a dress every day.
I was stunned. I was sad. I was in identity crisis mode! I made an agreement never to go to school so I could keep my name and my overalls.
I survived being 6, leaving all my favorite animals on the farm to go to school each day, wearing a stupid dress. But, I never really did get used to my real name. All through school, as it turned out, I was still DoBee, shortened to just Doob.
I once went to a high school reunion with my Dad. The nicknames came out of thin air — there was Shorty (the guy who looked 7 feet tall) and Spud, Petey, Sparky, Slim. I felt right at home in this circus.
Still, to this day, I hesitate in signing my name for such things as wedding guest books or funeral home registries. Many of my lifetime friends would have to stop and think if asked my real name.
My great-grandpa Charlie had to write it down, carrying my real name in his wallet because he never could remember it. If I am in a crowd, I answer to my nickname, but never think to turn my head if my real name is called out.
Louisa Talbot once wrote, “What does a name do? It defines us, it molds us, it is a handle in which we are carried through life.”