Maybe the entire problem is that I don’t have a name that I can dependably remember when I’m stressed. My biological parents found unity on very few subjects but one was their fondness for that nursery tale of love and loss—Little Bo-Peep has lost her sheep and can’t tell where to find them. ip adr . Leave them alone and they’ll come home wagging their tails behind them. Mama embroidered Bo-Peep at the center of my first blanket while Papa went in search of a name that could logically be shortened to Bo.
Coincidentally, he had just discovered that he was, like most of his family, a diabetic, and couldn’t bring himself to reveal this news to my mother who would be both terrified for him and furious that their baby might develop the same ravaging disease. To postpone the day of revelations he went for long walks in depressing places and eventually discovered the name “Bonita” carved into the gravestone of a sixteen-year-old girl who had been buried in an Oregon cemetery. The first sheep I lost was he. The second was my mother. Eventually she came home again but he never did. So much for plots taken from nursery rhymes.
Next my grandparents took possession of naming me and, being Scotch-Irish, they called me Bonnie. Clyde, my granddad, loved to sing when he worked; and long after he had died, I could tilt my head at just the right angle and still hear his raspy baritone doing a chorus of “My Bonnie lies over the ocean, my Bonnie lies over the sea. / My Bonnie lies over the ocean. Please bring back my Bonnie to me.” I loved that song until one day Grandma Blanche indulged herself in a dour Scot’s moment and described how she hadn’t been very upset when, sometime before my third birthday, I had been taken from them to live with my mother and her new husband, but Grandpa had cried like his heart was broken.
Now when I tilt my head in that familiar way I can only hear the second stanza to the song: “My Bonnie ate a poison mushrooms. Now she lies under the sea. My Bonnie ate a poison mushrooms. Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me.” Scotch ballads have such a way with reaming the joy out of any sentiment.
To this day there are a few men who call me Beep: my dad, uncle Dwight and my brother Joe. As a child I never liked being referred to as the short blast of a car horn but just this last year I came to realize that the name hadn’t rolled off a line in Detroit but had originally been a contraction for Bo-Peep. This simple explanation suddenly transformed an ugly name into a cute name. It wasn’t me, I mean it wasn’t a name I would ever call myself, or expect the Dragon of True-Self-Names to whisper as an enchantment key but it was a name which expressed the pleasure that a shy, twenty-six-year-old Dalton Holland must have taken in his new girlfriend’s baby daughter. And Dad’s continued use of that single syllable, Beep, now revives for me that moment when I was nothing but a tiny head upon his chest, a present experience of that simple phrase “The Quaker Way.” From Uncle Oscar’s first steps upon the sidewalk in Harper he was complete and named but in his presence I came to think of myself as three different girls: Bitsy Bo, the subservient child who struggled to live up to Oscar’s daily plans for my self-improvement; B., who rebelled at Oscar’s rigid authoritarianism; and Me, the secret self who prized nothing so much as invisibility.
When my son was about ten we visited my grade school in Harper during a reunion weekend. He needed to go to the bathroom and took off after I gave him directions. Several minutes later he sidled up to me and whispered, “What’s a proper noun?” I smiled and whispered back, “A name of a person, place or thing. They’re the nouns you have to capitalize. Like New York, or Michael Jackson, or Sony.” He answered with his usual pat phrase, “I know that.” So then I asked, “What made you want to know about proper nouns right now?” “There was an old lady who saw me in the hall. She said, ‘You must be Bonnie Holland’s little boy. You look just like her.’ She asked if I could remember proper nouns. I can. I told her so. She said, “That’s good because your mother never could.” Then he pointed across the room at my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Mayberry. “That’s her, the really, really, old lady.”
My secret weakness, the one I had kept from even Uncle Oscar hadn’t ever actually been a secret. All fifteen hundred people in Harper, Kansas must have thought of me as Willmetta Holland’s little girl who couldn’t remember proper nouns. A neurologist once explained my struggle to retrieve proper nouns from what seemed like a rubber cement zone in my memory was due to the same brain damage that treats me to a blockbuster migraine every 7 to 8 days. According to his theory, I have no difficulty with common nouns because they’re stored in a different area of the brain. My favorite psychoanalyst has another theory that the unconscious does funny things to avoid hurt. If, for instance, all your all siblings have Biblical names like Joseph, Sarah, Rebecca, John and your name was something decidedly exotic like Bonita your unconscious might try to ignore the whole naming thing. Or if an uncle named William Carl made a special mention of you in his will then you might come to trust and even marry a man named Carl William.