When I was three, I remember going out with my mother.. I asked her where we were going– I always was suspicious that she was taking me to the doctor for a shot– and she told me we were going to see Sissy and that she recently had a baby. Sissy and her husband and the baby came for Sunday dinners and we’d go to the beach together and picnic together. Then I was six and it was my first day of school. My mother told me I couldn’t use my nickname at school . Near the end of my first day in First Grade, my teacher, Mrs. Purvis, called me to her desk, addressed me by my nickname, and asked me how Eleanor was doing . She said she went to high school with her. I remember telling her that I didn’t know any Eleanor. She tried prompting me with hints and finally she mentioned Sissy, who she referred to as my sister. I had a six-year-old’s aha moment. Poor Mrs Purvis looked a bit worried.
When I got home, I remember that I was very talkative, telling my mother all about school and Mrs. Purvis. Then I told her about my conversation with my teacher and that Sissy was my sister and her name was Eleanor. My mother had that same look on her face as Mrs Purvis had. As I look back, I realize how retarded I must have seemed and it was a wonder Mrs. Purvis didn’t put me in the “slow” class. From that day forward, I called my sister Eleanor. That became a bone of contention for us on several occasions. She would be itching for a fight, usually about something I did or didn’t do and she’d bring up the fact that only I called her Eleanor whereas everyone else on the planet called her Ellie . I tried telling her my First Grade story but she had that same look on her face as my mother and Mrs. Purvis had. She told me that there was no way I could have been that stupid and did I think she was stupid enough to fall for that story?
I continue to call her Eleanor. I have never wavered from my conviction that Eleanor is my sister’s name and it represents her. The last time I saw her she brought it up again. We went round and round, as usual. I continued telling her that I call her Eleanor because that’s her name. My sister is seventeen years older. She married when I was a year old. We never shared the typical sibling experiences. We never lived together. At age three I wasn’t familiar with the concept of “sister”. While growing up she acted more like a mother than a sister. Personally, I think she’s lucky I didn’t put “Mrs” in front of her name.
Nicknames mean a lot in my family, obviously. It’s like having a second identity, known only to my family and friends. It’s less of a term of endearment than an indicator of a private, shared history. A nickname is a connection to my childhood and all its memories. Our nicknames are links in a chain of memories. Perhaps that’s why my sister is so disturbed that I call her by her formal, given name. She’s missing a link.