By: Nikiesha Neil
How do you explain to someone that your 40 something year old cousin, Yum, and her 35 year old brother, Pooh, are coming over? Did I mention Pooh is short for, Poodah-Pooh? Like his sister, his nickname has been pared-down to a shorter version. If you’re like me, you start by saying, “I grew up in a big family. . .” followed by, “If you hear me answer to, Ladybug, it’s my nickname.” Being the daughter of “Lank” (Robert) and, “Miss Blue” (Betty), it just seemed to be the natural order of things for me to also have a nickname. Or, as I like to call it, a family name. No shame. No judgment.
I was an adult before I realized just how fun and unique our family names, mostly assigned to us by my maternal grandfather, were. I was told that he assigned us all names because he could not either pronounce, or remember our given names. Maybe even both! My aunts and uncles’ family names all had a story that went with it. The stories inevitably have to do with my grandfather’s perception of their personality, or their behavior in their early childhoods.
There is what my Grandma used to call, “a gang of us”. Similar to a lot of large families, my own consisting of six children and 13 grandchildren, it meant there was a lot of name calling going-on. So much, in fact, I know I’ve answered to a finger point and a, “You, come here.” It was sure to be followed by, “Come here! You know who I’m talking to.”
Regardless, the sense of belonging that I felt is something I would not ever trade, and it definitely cannot be measured. There is something special about family names, in that they are a cultural birthright within the black community and are generally terms of endearment.
One of my uncles was initially given the family name, “Hollerin’ Jack”. Although after calling him by that name several hundred times, like the rest of us it was shortened to, “Hollinjack”. As the story goes, my grandfather assigned that family name to him because plain and simple, he thought my uncle was a child that, “never would stop hollering, all he did was holler”.
Thus the family name, Hollerin’ Jack. My mother’s oldest brother was not any different. His family name? *Drum Roll* “Ham”. Just take a guess at the type of child he was. Somehow, both of my uncles escaped the confines of the more traditional prefix of uncle. I am positive that I never called them, Uncle James, or Uncle Ned. Not that, “Uncle” Ham would have been any better; the respect that they garnered from us was not at all compromised by this. The boundaries were always clear, and let’s just be all the way honest, having an uncle named Ham to ask for a quarter, was cool in my book.
Usually assigned to us with love, affection and adoration, I liken family names to our grandmothers who are, Graham, Grandma, Nana, Big Mama, Ma Dear, GiGi, or, Rock. Even if you were not so fortunate as to have been assigned a family name, I don’t think any of us could escape the perpetual sing-song tone of a name that always draws you near.
Names like: baby, fat baby, sweet baby, baby doll, sweetie pie, sugar and so many others that make life sweet with the goodness, kindness and comfort from those who nurture our souls like no other. Whether assigned by a family member, crew or team, family names become a part of who we are and they have the potential to shape our future selves.
In my case, my grandfather said that I brought him good luck, and so he called me Ladybug. Since I believed from a young age that I was valuable, I never had a reason to think otherwise. My grandfather’s ability to speak over me in such a positive and affirming way afforded me a life in which I developed self-worth, and a strong sense of purpose.
Growing-up, I was always proud to be the younger cousin of Weeyim (William), Yum Yum (Frances), and Suzy-Q (Evelyn). What never occurred to me was that one day we would become adults, with families of our own, and our children would become the generation that added “Auntie”, and, “Uncle” in front of those very same family names.
No matter how old we get, it is always heartwarming to know that I belong to a group of people with whom I share a piece of my life’s story. And, in order for me to be transparent enough to introduce someone to my family, or share stories riddled with my family affiliation, there has to be some relatable thread that bonds us. Like so many families, we were no different when it came to having a family name. It only meant you were so special in your position, that you were named twice.
Who among us has not experienced the warm hug of an aunt Bunny, Doll, Sis or Cookie? We cannot leave out the cousins with whom we had countless adventures, and who became the makings of our very first best friends. No matter their birth names, to us they will forever be: Man (as in little, big or main), Toot, Punkin’, Noonie, Peanut, Junior, Ladybug and Yum.