Naming, Family Language, and Why I Called My Mother Mother

I’ve been thinking of my dad most of the weekend, since the Richards family reunion was on Thursday and I was surrounded by many relatives.  In the small group, though, I was acutely aware of who was not there — Dad, in particular.  How he would have enjoyed seeing us gather together and talk and laugh.  So many stories were told, and so many people came up to me to let me know how he was missed.

As I enjoyed my cousin Barbara’s two grandchildren all weekend, watching them play and squabble and sleep, I remembered so many times at the farm with Barbara and her brother, Jim, and our cousins Mike and Charlie, and my brother Phil and sister Kay.  Phil and Kay were enough younger that they weren’t around so much at first.  But the five older cousins managed to do a lot of exploring and have a lot of adventures in the many visits to our grandparents and the farm.

Driving up to the farm on Friday and back on Sunday, I heard Dad’s running commentary from the many trips we made during the last couple of years, when I did the driving and he got to enjoy the scenery.  Names of roads, locations, buildings — so many times he had a story about something or someone he knew.  Now, though, I drive it by myself and remember.

This weekend was filled with food, and laughter, and lots of stories.

One of the many things that I thought of this weekend was how families create their own language of sorts, or at least their own phrases and names for things.

Take, for example, the simply pacifier.  For many people, it’s a “passie.”  In our family, it’s had other names.  One was “foolie” — because it was meant to fool the baby.  Another (coined by me, as a toddler) was the term “a-wee.”  I have absolutely no idea why.

I do remember using it, though.  And was old enough to remember sitting in the back of our car, window open, fitting my finger in the ring only to deliberately pop it out of the window.  I would then demand another, and when Mother drove to the store, was able to go and pick out my next one.

In those days, pacifiers were easily lost.  Later, you could find them with strips of elastic or fabric attached, along with a safety pin of sorts — you could pin it onto the baby’s clothes so that you didn’t lose so many of them.

This weekend, though, I got to see one that Barbara’s granddaughter Katie has — it is attached by fabric to a small stuffed animal.  For Katie, this is her “baby.”  I found this out when Barbara asked her “Why’d you spit out your baby?” When I burst out laughing, so did Barbara — and that’s when I started to think about how families use language and how silly and ridiculous that can sound outside the family.  But isn’t that part of the richness and the flexibility of language?

And isn’t that one of the ways that we humans learn the suppleness of words, their meanings and use, and language itself?

Within families, we also use different terms for parents and grandparents.  For Colton and Katie, their grandparents right now are Papa and Gaga.  Thus I began to call Barbara “Lady Gaga” on and off all weekend.  Their great-grandmother, my Aunt Jean, is Gigi (GeeGee)– for Great Grandmother, of course.

For Kay and Phil, Barbara and Jim, Mike and Charlie and me, our Ware grandparents were Grandmother and Granddad (or when we were young, Granddaddy).  Though I didn’t know my Grandmother Ware’s parents, I refer to them as the rest of the family (those who knew them, especially)  refer to them:  Papa Richards and Mama Richards (or Fat Mama or Big Mama, which was ironic because she was so tiny).

That’s pretty straightforward.  But on my mother’s side it becomes a bit trickier.  I called my mother “Mommy” and “Mama” when I was little, but as I got older, I began to call her Mother.  I couldn’t use the term “Mom.”  That was already in use — I apparently chose that as what I called my maternal grandmother, Ella.  My reasoning, it seems, was that I already used Grandmother for Grandmother Ware, and could not use that again.  It was too confusing, I thought.  And if I called her Mom, then everyone else had to follow suit.

Why, then, did I choose “Mom”?  Well, that’s because her parents were known to us as “Old Mom” and “Old Pop.”  I’ve heard some of my mother’s cousins write those as O’Mom and O’Pop because of the Irish ancestry.  But to me and my family, they were Old Mom and Old Pop.  Thus my grandmother Ella became Mom.  And Mother couldn’t be Mom too.  So she became Mother.

Now, though, if I’m with my cousin Carolyn (her mother and my mother were sisters), I switch between Mom and Grandmother, because she called our grandmother Grandmother.

And if family names are common, think about how to distinguish one from another. That’s when nicknames appear.

That happens in Dad’s family.  With the name James, in fact.  Granddad was James Franklin Ware.  He and Grandmother named their first son James Ernest Ware.  Grandmother’s sister MaryLou named her son James Richard.  My dad’s sister named her first son James Michael.  My Uncle James named his son James Lane.  My Aunt Mildred’s second son, Charlie, named his son Michael Joseph. I forget how many other Jameses there are in addition.  Those are just the ones in our immediate group that I’m around or refer to a lot.

To others, then, Granddad might have been Jim, or Uncle Jim.  My Uncle James was sometimes Big Jim or Jim or James.  My cousin James Richard (actually James Richards, it turns out) is generally known as RIchard (though I often call him James Richard as others sometimes do).  My cousin James Michael is Mike.  Charlie’s son is, to his friends, Mike, but within our family is Michael J.  Uncle James’s son is known as Jim, though we often call him Jimbo, which is what we called him when we were growing up.

When my brother Philip was born, Dad resisted using the name James again — yet wanted to name Phil after his own father.  So Phil was Philip Franklin.

My cousin Barbara was named Barbara Jean; her mother is Iris Jean.  Barbara’a daughter is Larissa Jean.  Larissa’s baby is Kathryn Jean.

Me?  There are no other Cheryls in the family.  There is, though, another Lynn.  My dad lived for a while with his maternal Uncle Earl, who had a daughter named Sarah Lynn.  Sarah Lynn was a baby when Dad lived with them in the 40s before WWII.  But she remembers his living with them.  And on Saturday, the two Lynns had their picture taken together.

My sister Kay Darlene?   When Mom (that’s my grandmother Ella, remember?) ran a boarding house, she had a boarder named Kay Darlene, and Mother always loved that name and remembered it.

And of course, because Mother was Catholic and we were brought up in the Catholic Church,  I had to have other names, since there was neither a Saint Cheryl nor a Saint Lynn.  Hence my baptismal name:  Cheryl Lynn Maria.  And add my chosen confirmation name:  Theresa.  I am Cheryl Lynn Maria Theresa Ware, as far as the Church is concerned.  Kay and Phil didn’t have to have extra names — Saint Catherine (Kay) and Saint Philip (Phil) sufficed for them.  I guess I needed all the help I could get.

Dad was Henry Theophilus Ware.  He was named after his two grandfathers:  William Henry Richards and Theophilus Valentine Ware.  He was known has H.T. in the family. When he was growing up, his family and friends called him “T-Bone,” and sometimes I heard that called out to him.  Dad’s best friend called Dad “H-ee”  — as in the letter H, then ee. If someone called him Uncle H, then that’s either Mike or Charlie (his sister’s two sons).  Other nieces/nephews/great-nieces and great-nephews refer to him as Uncle H.T. or even Uncle T. If someone called him Hank, I knew that person knew Dad from work.

Though I call my dad’s sister Aunt Mildred, he often referred to her by her childhood nickname — Rip. One of the things she could do as a kid — and still can do, I suspect– is manage an ear-splitting whistle that I’ve always admired. Maybe that’s the source of her nickname.

Mother was Irene Braxton Steele.  Her middle name was her biological father’s.  Her last name was the name of her stepfather Charles Steele; when she was 18, she had her name changed and had him adopt her.

Which brings me back to names.  I had more grandfathers than many people.  I had Grandad Ware.   I had Grampa Charlie (Mother’s adopted/stepfather).  And I had Poppa (Mother’s stepfather, my grandmother Ella’s fourth husband).

As families have become so complicated in the 20th century, we adapt to fit the needs of naming.  With blended families, the need for flexibility is clear.  My mother’s family — because of my grandmother’s four husbands and my mother’s two stepfathers — was just ahead of the curve, I guess.

At the reunion this weekend, the oldest cousin was there, Minnie V.  She’s 97.  And she’s named for her mother, my great-grandmother Richards, known as Mama Richards, Minnie Vela Pickett Richards.

Names are just one of the many things that tie us together, along with our memories and stories, food, tears, and laughter.

Sometimes I think that one reason I fell in love with William Faulkner (he was the focus of my dissertation) was that I knew those complicated family trees, that convoluted genealogy.  I lived them.

As I sit and think about family, and how we talk, and how we name, I sit and smile.  Just as I sit and listen to my older cousins tell stories, I now sometimes find myself being one of the storytellers, to the younger generations of the family.  That’s just how it goes.

Next year, we’ll try to remember to bring poster foam boards and put them up for creating family trees, one for each Richards child.  That’s on the advice of Sissy, my cousin Mike’s wife.  That’s James Michael, not Michael Jay.

Confused yet?  Got it all straight?  Good luck with that.

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One thought on “Naming, Family Language, and Why I Called My Mother Mother

  1. Rueann Marras

    Keep these stories coming Cheryl. I love them. Can’t wait for the next one.

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