I never realized how strange Southerners were about names until I married a Yankee boy, but he set me straight. "When we," he said, emphasizing the "we" so that I would know he was talking about normal humans, not Southerners, "are born, we are given names. And after that, people call us by that name. You may get a Dave instead of a David or a Charlie instead of a Charles, but pretty much people get called what's on their birth certificate."
My People, on the other hand, think that the more names the better--a relic, perhaps, of an era when everybody had a backyard still and it was better to keep the Revenooers off the trail. Or maybe it's just a love a words--I dunno. The subject came up the other night when my oldest daughter asked, "Mom, what was your dad's name?" (My father died in 1981.)
"Eldon Andre," I said. "Except that sometimes on some papers it was listed as Eldon Andrew, for reasons nobody ever explained. But that nobody ever called him that. His family all called him Eddie; everybody else called him Tommy, including my mother. Except for my cousin Butch, who called him Unca Led until he was 16 and realized that what he should be saying was Uncle Ed."
There was a pause. "What?" my daughter said.
Imagine her confusion if I'd given her the full nine yards. My cousin Butch's real name is David, but I have never heard anyone address him by this name. His own wife calls him Butch. His father, my father's brother, was named Milner Chalmers, but was universally known as M.C. (and a good thing, too)--except to me and my sister, who knew him as Uncle CC. My mother's name was Enley Ruth, but very few people ever knew about the "Enley" part; for all her life, she was "Ruth." After my father's death, she met up with an old flame at the 40th reunion of Russell High School Class of 1944, of East Point, Georgia, and they were together until the end of her life. His name is W. E. Hiers, but although I have known this person my entire life (he and his family were members of my mother's church), to this day I have no idea what W.E. stands for; I just know him as Buster, as does everyone else. (My father-in-law, who hails from Queens, has never figured out who is Butch and who is Buster, and keeps trying to call both of them Bubba, which just goes to show you that Yankees are tone deaf when it comes to the nuances of language.) My sister's name is Ellen, but I've never called her that; to me, and to most of her friends, she is Nonny. (Long story.) As for me, I had enough names as a child to cover any number of multiple personalities, should I have ever developed that problem: my mother called me Tace or Tater Bug; my father called me Curly, my sister calls me Bug (another long story) and I answer to almost anything, notably the dinner bell. It was just no big deal, you know? In the South, putting a name on a child's birth certificate was merely the starting point for negotiations.
In some ways, I think, Southerners regard names the same way T. S. Eliot regarded the names of cats: you can call them whatever you want, but the cat himself has One True Name, which only the cat himself knows, and will never reveal. A person's name is, or should be, something that emerges over time; it reflects personality, and habits, and it should be adaptable, to fit changing circumstances, or to reflect some youthful personality quirk. My father's was called "Tommy" because it went well with "Thompson"--but another reason was that it reflected my father's ease with others, his sunny charm. Calling him Eldon would have felt like putting him in an undertaker's suit, when his natural attire, nomenclaturally speaking, was shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. The only mystery, and it will be forever a mystery, is where the "Andre" came from. Pretty hifalutin' stuff for an Alabama boy, there are no French people anywhere in the Thompson family tree, and his mother never had a satisfactory answer. Some things, I think, are best left mysteries.