Bonita W.

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.

One Comment

  • In Women, Their Names, and the Sto­ries They Tell, essay­ists like Bonita with many nick­names have intrigu­ing expla­na­tions as to why they feel a lack of attach­ment to any one name. Bonita speaks of phys­i­o­log­i­cal rea­sons; but she also gives psy­cho­log­i­cal rea­sons: her name does not fit in with the bib­li­cal names given to her other sib­lings. These essay­ists remind us that names are tran­sient and chang­ing, depend­ing on who is address­ing us and what aspect of our­selves we may be think­ing about. Women with many dif­fer­ent nick­names seem to be more sen­si­tive to dif­fer­ent aspects of them­selves and oth­ers because they are used to think­ing of them­selves with a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent names that reveal not only some­thing about their own char­ac­ter, but also some­thing about how oth­ers see them. Do you have more than one nick­name? How did you get your nick­names? What do your nick­names say about you and about how oth­ers under­stand you and feel about you?

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