I’ve been thinking a lot about names lately, about their importance, about what they mean. I wrote once about making sure you include your name in your blog bio, and a fellow writer, Jamie Wallace, was encouraging her readers to do the same. She and I laughed about ridding the world of “About” pages without names, and then I got to wondering, why do we care? What is so important about a person’s name, why are those one or two words, “Andrea Badgley” or “Jamie Wallace,” so vital for connecting?
I’ve wondered about this for a long time, probably since the first time I read Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. McMurtry places a lot importance on names. In addition to giving his characters colorful distinctions like “Soupy Jones” and “Pea Eye Parker,” he writes at length and in hilarious detail about who gets his name on the Hat Creek Outfit’s sign, and how an illiterate character, Deets, pouts because those five letters, “Deets,” don’t look long enough on the sign to represent all the work he does on the ranch.
But more importantly, names come into play in the relationships of Woodrow Call, a captain of the Texas Rangers and a man of few words. One of his heartbreaking character flaws is that he does not use people’s names, not when it comes to matters of personal life and emotions, and it wounds his loved ones deeply that he won’t acknowledge them by name. Especially his lover and his son. Each time I read the book (and there have been many), I think, maybe this time it will be different. Maybe this time he’ll say, “Hello Maggie,” or “Thank you Maggie,” or even, “Goodbye, Maggie.”
My heart aches every single time, when he doesn’t say it, and it has long puzzled me as to why it’s so hurtful. After all, a man like Woodrow Call experiences the world differently from me. He’s not chatty. He doesn’t care for words. He experiences life in more of a zen state: quiet, observant, meditative. Solitary. He doesn’t speak much as a whole – words aren’t as important to him as actions and deeds, and too much talking aggravates him – so it should come as no surprise that names have little value to him. Those who love him, including myself, know this about him. But still, it hurts.
Personally, I like to call people by name. I wasn’t always like that. Lonesome Dove had some influence, and though he has no idea, my husband’s uncle Mike is the one who ultimately changed me. Uncle Mike is the world’s friendliest guy, a huge teddy bear of a man, and whenever he speaks to me, he makes me feel like I’m the most important person in the world. He says, “Andrea, I’ll tell you why I love the Buckeyes,” or, “Andrea, that was a brutal winter – the snow drifts were higher than the fence!” or “That’s a fine boy you’ve raised, Andrea.” For the longest time I could not figure out why he always made me feel so warm and welcome, and then I realized, it’s because when he talks to me, he says my name. He hugs me and says, “It’s so good to see you, Andrea,” as opposed to “It’s so good to see you,” which could be for anybody. When he addresses me by name, he makes me feel special. He’s not just talking to anyone, he’s talking to me.
Addressing a person by name — “Maggie” — is the equivalent of saying, with one word, “I am focused on you; you are important to me; I want to give you my attention.” That one word contains an entire identity — the shape of her face, the lightness of her voice, the way she moves across the room, the gentleness of her touch, the warmth of her heart — and speaking a name forges a powerful link, like the zing of connection when you make eye contact, that Woodrow just wasn’t willing to give. Woodrow wouldn’t make Maggie feel special by singling her out, by acknowledging her identity, by indicating with a simple, solitary word, “You are important to me.”
“You don’t never say [my name],” she said. “You don’t never call me nothin’. I just wish you’d say it once when you come.”
“I don’t know what that would amount to,” he said honestly.
Maggie sighed. “I’d just feel happy if you did,” she said. “I’d just feel so happy.”
I would, too, Maggie.
Originally published August, 2013, on Butterfly Mind.