I just got off the phone with our son. Stephan is living in Columbus, Georgia, the town I grew up in. Of all the people I expected to live in Georgia, I never expected it to be our son. But as Mary Engelbreit so succinctly summed it up: “Where Ever you go, there you are.”
Stephan was calling to let me know he was back home after making a quick trip up to East Tennessee to attend the funeral for one of my dad’s siblings. Those of you who read After the Flag Has Been Folded (HeroMama, HarperCollins) will know how Hugh Lee stepped into our lives following his brother’s death. There weren’t many people Mama could count on to be of help but Hugh Lee was one of them. He was a tenderhearted man who loved kids, and history, and story, caramel cake and cigarettes, not together of course. Hugh Lee’s Adam Apple fascinated me when I was a kid, the way it moved up and down whenever he talked, like he’d swallowed a fireball that got stuck midway down. I always found it uncanny the way he could lean his head back on the couch and fall straight to sleep sitting up. He would never fall over. He’d just sleep wherever he sat.
Stephan ended up being a pallbearer at Hugh’s service. It’s an odd thing for me to think about Dad’s grandson carrying his brother to his grave. These are things one never imagines when one has kids. When we think of the things the future holds for our children, it’s never whose pallbearer they will be one day. I envisioned a lot of things for my uncle, for my son, but never that.
My children haven’t spent a great deal of time with my Tennessee family, due to distance. They have been to one or two reunions, but that’s about it. Dad was one of eight. Mama was one of six. It can be difficult for the Oregon branch of the family to keep straight all the Tennessee branch of the family. It doesn’t help that everybody keeps changing their names, either.
Almost everyone is familiar with the tendency of Southerners to nickname people. One book reviewer took a pot shot at me for using so many unusual names in my Appalachian series. He made it sound like I sat around trying to come up with the lamest Southern names I could drum up. In reality, I took the names I used straight from the obituary sections of local newspapers in the region I was writing about. So that reviewer’s criticism that my names for people seemed all fakery, well, that reviewer can kiss my royal behinney. Those names were as authentic as can be cause they came from real life dead people.
Our boy had a bad enough trying to remember everyone’s name, especially given that nearly everybody has a different name than the one recorded in the Family Bible. In the Pacific Northwest nicknames aren’t really a thing, unless you count “Dude” as a nickname.
My dad’s youngest brother has always been Uncle Doug to me. That’s what Granny called him: Doug. So that’s what I called him: Doug. Everybody else calls him Raymond. That’s because when he got old enough to choose, he preferred Raymond. His name is officially Raymond Douglas, so it sort of makes sense. I could never call him Raymond, however, because he had an older brother named Ray. Elbert Ray, actually. He was runt of the litter, only weighing 2 pounds when he was born in 1937, but Uncle Ray grew to be a tall drink of water. He was always Uncle Ray to us kids, so having an Uncle Ray and Uncle Raymond who were brothers, well that is just downright confusing.
Speaking of which.
Uncle Ray had boys named Bobby and Eddie and a daughter everybody called Tiny. Tiny no longer goes by Tiny any more. She goes by Lynn, which is actually her given name. Bobby, however, goes by Ray, now, and his brother Eddie goes by Floyd.
Poor Stephan how could he keep any of that straight?
And that’s not the end of it.
My Uncle Doty was actually named Ray Price, and he lived in Nashville, long as ever. So sometimes he would get the mail of the country music star named Ray Price. Doty was my uncle’s nickname but when he had a boy, they named him Doty Ray. And forever, long as I knew my uncle was Uncle Doty, and my cousin was Doty Ray. But sometime after Uncle Doty passed, cousin Doty Ray dropped the Ray and became just plain Doty, like his daddy. (To muddy the waters even further, I have a cousin on Mama’s side named Doris but everyone calls her “Doodles”).
When she lived with us, my dad’s sister was called Mary Sue. Like one word all run together MarySue. Only people in East Tennessee pronounce Mary as Murry. So all my life I thought her name was “MurrySue”. I was in college before I realized “Murry” was just the Appalachian form of “Mary.”
But she doesn’t go by “Mary Sue” or “Murry Sue”, anymore, thank you very much.
It’s just Sue.
How do you do.
I suppose all this makes a bit of sense when you consider my grandfather Howard went by the name “Red”, which was his nickname.
Irish. Scot. Appalachian. Crop of Red hair, you see.
To most of the family he was called “Pap”, short for Pappy, but the townsfolk knew him as “Mr. Spears” or “Red.”
There was a time in college when I had a nickname. It was right after I moved out west and started university, some folks took to calling me “Georgia.” My friend Terry McGregor gave me a nickname when we traveled across country with the Run for the Wall motorcycle group. He dubbed me Sister Goldenhair. That’s the only nickname that ever stuck. He never again called me by my given name. To Terry, I was just always Sister Goldenhair. Sometimes, when he’d text or email, Terry would shorten it to just SGH.
My son doesn’t have to keep all that straight, though. To him, I’m just Mom. Had he been raised up properly, however, the Southern way, he’d know better than to call me Mom. I’d be Mama, Or Momma. Or Mam.
Or better yes, just “Yes, Ma’am.”
Bless his heart.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain, Burdy, & Christian Bend (Mercer University Press).