People younger than 60 are welcome to read this column, especially ones who have trouble recalling names on short notice. But mostly this column is for the older crowd. For many of us, because of illnessor disability or just from too many birthday parties, dredging up names quickly can be a chronic stress and embarrassment.
Here comes someone down Main Street. We’ve known one another 20 years, and we grin and stick out our right hands. He says, “Jim! Great to see you! How’re you doing?” And I’m struck dumb. What the hell’s this old friend’s name? And so I temporize.
“I’m doing well, buddy! I say heartily. I add, “How are things in your world?” hoping desperately his response will bring some hint. And he says (of course), “Great, too. I know you were sorry to hear about Fred.”
As a hint, that’s a dud. In fact, it worsens things! Is Fred sick, dead, in a messy divorce, locked up in jail or rehab? Is Fred a brother, uncle, wayward son or grandson, mutual friend? I try a sympathetic shake of my head. “Well, I’m really sorry about it.” He shrugs.
“It happens to us all, I guess.” “WHAT?” I don’t yell that, but instead try, “How long ago did it happen?”
“Oh, I don’t know. You’ll have to ask Louise. She’s the one who remembers things.”
Forget Fred! I’ve got the guy’s wife’s name! But why did it have to be “Louise”? Why not Bernice or Hyacinth or Serena — some name that might strike a match inside my sodden head? And worse! Louise may be this guy’s sister or daughter, or maybe his secret squeeze that he presumes that I, his old friend, already know about. Oh, Lord! I try a shotin the dark.
“And how’s Louise doing these days?” I ask this with cheery concern, but his face darkens.
“Well, she’s back in school again. Didn’t know if that was going to happen after the split-up and then the accident.
But she’s back on her feet, with just a little hitch in her walk.” He tries a weak grin. “I dunno, some guy might find that little bit of a roll pretty sexy. Maybe she’ll get another man out of it. God knows she needs help with the twins and Fred — he’s 13 now.”
FRED AGAIN! Is it this teenage Fred the one that was first mentioned? Was he in the accident with Mary and now is in trouble in school? Or is he Fred, Jr.?
Or was Mary married to some bum named Fred, some fool who couldn’t hold a job, insisted his name was spelled Phred, and finally fricasseed his liver with a quart of booze a day? Is Phred in jail? Drying out? In a vegetative state?
Help! I’m losing track of all this, and so I pull the most shameless trick in the book. I suddenly look surprised, glance at my watch, and say hurriedly, “Hey, old friend, I’d like to hear more about this. But if I miss another dental appointment, my Anne’s going to skin me.” He laughs.
My Alice’s that way with me, too. You go along. We shake hands and, on a sudden impulse, he gives me a big hug!
“You keep truckin,’ Jim.” His voice is choked with emotion. “Old friends are the best friends!”
We part, and I head off down the sidewalk, feeling like a shamed dog. I stop dead in front of Sal’s Pizzeria.
Wait! His wife’s name is Alice. I strain my cerebrum, but it doesn’t help. And so I go in Sal’s and have a meat-eater’s slice, my favorite. It’s great comfort food but doesn’t help my memory ...
You all know moments like that, don’t you? But here comes help, galloping in like the cavalry. I got the word at the Farmer’s Market from Mary Marx. She’s got a solution!
Mary and I were commiserating about name problems, which she says that she shares with a large circle of friends.
They’ve made a delightful, practical contract among them: 1) We’ve known each other for years by talents, quirks, rich personalities. 2) That kind of real knowledge is more important than any name tag attached to a neck, a tag temporarily out of sight. 3) So, failing immediate recall, let’s use any name that comes to mind, and let’s respond with laughter when others have to do the same!
And laugh they do, says Mary, especially when the substitute name is especially off the wall. Hortense, maybe, or Bathsheba or Clytemnestra.
What an inspiration, Mary! You could have simply contracted to use “George” for any unidentifiable man, or “Helen” for any such woman. But your group decided on something more imaginative, more zany; something that reflects the best solution to any unchangeable annoyance. Laugh at it!
I’m recommending Mary’s practice to all of you in our tight little community. If we all agree, then we’ve solved the problem. And what a relief for us.
I’m giving fair warning: Mary’s practice is going to be my own. So best wishes, friends, from Clovis or Hildebrand or whoever that wobbly What’s-His-Name is, out in Fly Creek.