Janet Sheridan: What’s in a name?

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Janet Sheridan

I think cake, presents and the happy birthday ditty obscure a significant event connected to birth: the naming of innocent, trusting babies who have no say in the matter.

How many times have you heard: “You’ll never believe this, but in college I knew a girl named Wanna Hickey, ha ha ha” Such statements are natural conversation starters; everyone in the room can participate, sharing hilarious names bestowed on precious newborns — April Schauer, Walter Melon, Willie Leak.

As hoots of laughter abound, I think about the tyke burdened with such a label for life, or until old enough to petition the courts for a name change.

I had a friend named Betty Crocker who tired of being called Cake Mix and started the process of changing her name the day she turned 18.

And, what is this thing we have about bestowing nicknames on one another, our possessions and ourselves? I resist this temptation. I don’t rename my loved ones, my car, my toothbrush or my body parts.

In fact, I’ve always avoided the name game. I remember letting others clamor for the privilege of christening family pets, and I identified my dolls by descriptive phrases: baby doll, bald doll, armless doll, peeing doll.

Perhaps my reluctance to name things arose from my disappointment with Janet.

My parents did the best they could, but they had other things on their minds. Dad had started a new job after our move from California to Utah, three other children needed attention and Mom’s bed in the hall of the crowded Cottonwood Maternity Home was infested with bedbugs.

She was preoccupied, unable to settle on a name, so Dad found it.

Driving home after my birth, he caught sight of a name in red neon letters atop a shabby diner: Janet’s Hamburgers. He admired the way it looked, spelled out in cursive, flashing boldly in the night, and thought it would be a beautiful name for his baby girl.

He used to claim that he wanted to be true to the source and name me Janet Hamburger, but Mom refused.

In third grade, I asked my mother if I could switch names with Barbara who was only 5 and would never know the difference. I thought Barbara sounded more melodious than Janet.

Listening to Mom read aloud from “One Hundred and One Famous Poems” must have developed my poetic sensitivities. It seemed obvious to me that Barbara Bray lilted. Janet Bray clanked. Barbara evoked images of tinkling laughter, bonbons and small feet; Janet suggested boiled potatoes and sinus problems.

I thought my name handicapped me. No one would expect Janet Bray to excel. Someone with such an unadorned name would never out-cute Shirley Temple or ride a rhinoceros.

No. Those honors would go to Kelsey Cornaby or Annetta Anderson, Johanna Henderson, Lydia Lindstrom, or Roxie Throckmorton. Girls with multi-syllabic, musical names: names that danced lightly on the tongue: sang.

Meanwhile, Janet Bray would be stuck wearing hand-me-downs, fighting for a window seat and catching pink eye — all because her name thumped through the airwaves like a hippo missing an appendage.

In sixth grade, my displeasure with my name led to a monumental mistake. I informed my classmates that my name was French, properly pronounced Jah-nee, rhymes with nay, and they should please start pronouncing it correctly.

They seemed impressed until Frank Dimmick challenged me: “Oh, yeah, how do you say your last name then?”

That’s when I blundered. I haughtily replied, “It’s not Bray, but Brah, rhymes with ah: Jahnee Brah.”

In that moment, I branded myself with a nickname that caused unending amusement for others and misery for me. For the rest of the year, I heard: “How’s it going, Maidenform?”

I haven’t named anything since.

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