If you could choose your own name, what would it be? Have you ever had a nickname that followed you through life, nipping at your heels like a dog with the mange?
I’ve had several. Some were more tolerable than others.
When I was born, my mother named me “Sharon Lee.” I don’t know why she chose “Sharon.” Apparently, it was a popular name for girls at the time. Some “Sharons” wear it well, but for me, it never quite seemed to fit.
“Lee” was my mother’s middle name. I’m proud she wanted me to have it. It was a part of her that I could hold onto forever, that could never be misplaced or stolen or sold at a yard sale.
I lost her long ago to cancer, but I still have her name. It’s the only thing she left me. Besides her hands. They come poking out of my sleeves everyday.
My first nickname came from my stepdad. I was 4 when he married my mother. From the start, he called me “Grannie.”
Why? He said I was like an old woman always worrying about other people’s business. I didn’t take it as a compliment. But I grew rather fond of it. He died soon after my mother. His last words to me were, “Take care of yourself, Grannie, you hear?”
No one calls me “Grannie” any more. My kids call me “Mom” or “Mama.” My grandkids call me “Nana.” My husband in a good mood calls me “Hummingbird.” I love those names. But some days, I miss hearing “Grannie.”
In second grade, I had a classmate whose name I wished were mine. I could barely wait for roll call every morning to hear that lovely appellation come sliding off my teacher’s Southern tongue: Yolanda!
Isn’t that the best? I was sure my mother had made a mistake. I was meant to be a Yolanda.
But no. As fate would have it, I would not be called “Yolanda” or even “Sharon Lee.” I would be called — and I may regret telling you this — “Bird Legs.”
It started on the playground while picking teams for “Red Rover.” One of the boys pointed to me and yelled to the team captain, “Pick ‘Bird Legs’! She’s skinny, but she’s strong!”
It was not a term of derision, just a simple point of fact: My legs were matchsticks. For years I’d hear, “Red Rover, Red Rover, let ‘Bird Legs’ come over!” And I would run like the wind.
After college, when I left the Carolinas for California, I was sure I left “Bird Legs” behind.
I gave my three children beautiful names that somehow got shortened. Joshua became Gosh. Joanna became Nan. (She’d have been Yolanda, but her dad said no.) And Baby Nathan was Nate the Great.
When the kids started school, I worked at a local newspaper as a reporter and columnist. After the column was syndicated, I worked at home in my pajamas.
One day my editor (his name is Fred, but I call him Fernando) phoned to tell me that a former classmate had seen my column online and called to ask if I was the person he grew up with.
“Nice guy,” said Fernando, “we had a great chat. So, were you really called ‘Chicken Legs’?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I snarled. “It was ‘Bird Legs.’”
“I like ‘Chicken Legs’ better.”
That is what Fernando has called me for years. I feared he might use it as a byline on my column. But he’s retired now. I seldom see him. No one else calls me “Chicken Legs.” Some days I miss it. But not much.
Imagine my surprise this Christmas to get a package from Fernando. What on earth could it be? I tore it open and stood blinking at ... a pair of socks?
Wait. They weren’t just any socks. They were adult-sized knee socks, cleverly designed to look exactly, I swear, like bona fide, real live, chicken legs.
I wish you could see them.
I might promise to wear them to Fernando’s next birthday wingding. On one condition: From now on, he has to call me “Yolanda Lee.”
Or maybe “Yo” for short.