Dad called me “Mich” and was the first person ever to do so; he said it with a tenderness, a kind reverence. It was reserved for when he would compliment me, congratulate me, urge me on.
He also called my mother “Patsy,” instead of Patricia; all six of his children got their own nicknames. He passed away before any of my children were born — but not before his 16 grandchildren, courtesy of my five older brothers and sisters, created his own nickname: Papa Bill.
My brothers and sisters called me “Mich” and still do when we see each other. My mother, though, had her own nicknames for us kids, her own expressions of the kind of love that would last long after the person who spoke them out loud. She called us things like “Snookie Pie,” “Snookie-Ookums,” “Baby Snookie Pie,” well into our teens. In her mouth, they were nongendered monikers in which she wrapped my two brothers, three sisters and I equally when she toweled our hair after baths or handed us plates of fried eggs for breakfast. She too has passed, now nearly 20 years ago.
How can a few silly syllables contain so much love?
A nickname can embody love, compassion and tenderness, a secret handshake or a soothing balm at the end of a rough day.
Those nicknames were never hurled in cruelty at us — though if we did something stupid, we were briefly tagged with the moniker “Bedelia.” (I think it must have come from the “Amelia Bedelia” books; her character never seemed to capture nuance.) Sometimes, if annoyed, my mother called us “McGillicuddy,” the maiden name of Lucille Ball’s character on “I Love Lucy.”
A nickname can embody love, compassion and tenderness, a secret handshake or a soothing balm at the end of a rough day, rough patch or rough life. The sacrosanctity of our names is the reason people say, “Keep my name out of your mouth,” when someone is being offensive or brutal.
The opposite is also true, though we never say it. We want certain people to keep our names in their mouths because we hope that means it’s in their hearts. There is purity in a name that isn’t quite yours being calcified in affection; a name uttered only when meant to soothe, a Morse code of closeness.
When I first began the relationship with the man who would become my husband (and later my ex-husband), he called me “Lovey.” The only other time I’d heard that nickname was when the Professor on “Gilligan’s Island” called his wife that. I tolerated it for a few years from him because he was kind when he said it.
But at one point, when describing an argument he’d had with an ex-girlfriend, he mentioned her nickname: “Lovey.” I don’t know why I was so shocked that he’d called someone else by the nickname he’d insisted on using with me. Even then, it felt like only a small brick in a cathedral of betrayals from him. I asked him to not call me that again; he did anyway. It no longer felt like a kindness.
Whispered at bedside or shouted from bleachers, a nickname is an assignment of love so heartily ostentatious it is meant to be consumed.
Still, it didn’t turn me away from nicknames. When I had children, I had nicknames for all my boys — who are men now at 32, 30 and 27. Brendan was “Sugar Dumpling Pie,” “B-Man” and “Boo Boo Bear.” Weldon was “Kissy Button Bear Pie,” “Dub” and “Dubaroonio.”
And Colin, well, he was “Coleyville,” “Coley Bear” and one slightly more embarrassing name his friends all discovered when he was 7 and playing youth baseball.
At the time, I was a relatively newly single parent and eager to cheer Colin on but also watching the time as I had to get to two other games on two other local baseball fields for my other two sons. After passing on a series of balls at his first at-bat of the game, Colin slammed one pitched down the middle of the plate, and it flew right past the outfielders.
I screamed his nickname in sheer elated youth-baseball-mother ecstasy: “Go, Sugar Buns!”
There was an instant hush in the stands. “Sugar Buns?” asked the mother sitting next to me. “That one will never die.”
All the boys turned to stare at me, and then guffawed, screeching in high-pitched voices: “Ahhhh, Sugar Buns!”
I had ruined his life.
Rounding the bases, Colin glared at me in disbelief. But approaching home plate, Colin acted impervious to their disdain. “That’s me, Sugar Buns!” he smiled, high-fiving his teammates.
In recent years, he has repeatedly reminded me not to call him any nickname in public, particularly at work events, even though these days I use the banal, affectionate nicknames of “Dub,” “B,” “C-Ster.”
The nicknames for my sons cannot erase the torrential conflicts we’ve had over the years, but they smooth the edges of our disagreements and serve quickly as a reminder of what is truly at stake.
Still, my oldest son, Weldon, was recently recovering from surgery at my home and, when I went to check on him and feel his head for a fever, I smoothed his hair and sighed, “My little Baby Snookie Boy.” Without opening his eyes, he smiled.
The cherished nicknames for my sons cannot erase the torrential conflicts we’ve had over the years — every parent and child has those — but they smooth the edges of our disagreements and serve quickly as a reminder of what is truly at stake. Love, after all, is not one straight line from birth to death, filled solely with kind expressions and Instagram shots of birthday cakes, anniversaries, weddings and Halloweens.
But intermittently along the more complicated timelines of our lives as families are the reasons we come up with the special names that both parties hold in our hearts, the ones we assign to each other and only each other that signify more than what’s on our birth certificates. They can overshadow some of the hurt we can’t help but inflict. It’s an embroidered connection contained in the sounds of the words.
Whispered at bedside or shouted from bleachers, a nickname is an assignment of love so heartily ostentatious it is meant to be consumed; it’s a literal translation of the sweetness it manifests.
One day, after my parents were gone, when my siblings were far away, “Mich” became the core of my roller derby name — which I skated every week for six glorious years until 2018. They called me “Mich the Masher,” and the derby girls call me “Mich” to this day.
“Mich”: It calms me still.