Unfortunately, most of us are not a part of our own naming ceremony. After birth itself, it is usually the second most important gift our parents give us. Most parents take the safe route naming their kids from the top of the most popular lists: Mary, Joseph, Charles, Susan or more recently Tiffany, Max, Emily and Jacob. My parents didn’t think that leaving me with a last name of Melahn (it sounds like the city in Italy) was going to be bad enough but they had to pair it with my father’s given name, LeRoy. Yes, capital “L”, capital “R”, LeRoy Carl Fredrick Ludwig Melahn the second. Later, shortened to LeRoy Carl Melahn Jr. I hated my name and I hated the first day of school every year. Every year the routine was the same. Everyone scurried around grabbing a seat or desk then waited for the teacher to walk to the front of the room and begin the first roll call of the year. I’d start twisting my head in various directions trying not to make eye contact with any of the other kids as the teacher started going through her list. Sweat would begin to form on my upper lip. I’d begin gnashing my teeth as the names escalated up the alphabet. By the time she reached the “H’s” I’d be praying for that imagined hole in the floor to swallow my up. “Steven Hanson”, “Here”, “Susan Johnson”, “Here”, “ Joan Liddle”, “Here” and then here it came.
“Leee-Roy Mel-lah-han.” I didn’t even bother to correct her as laughter catapulted through the room. I rang out my “Here” and hoped she would quickly move on to the next name. No little white kid in the late 1950’s living in a community of over one hundred thousand citizens of which only two were black wanted to be saddled with a handle like “LeRoy”. The undercurrents of racism were always present in the north just as they were in the south, only they weren’t as in your face here. We preached liberalism but the truth was there was a lot of bigotry hidden under those JFK for president lapel pins. It wasn’t until college I finally found the chance to transform myself from “LeRoy” into the more charismatic and less ethnically significant, “Lee”.
Then there were all the permutations of Melahn: Mel-a-han, Mel-lan, Malone and the always useful Melonhead. All my siblings suffered through this last one as the most useful name-calling employed by our friends and enemies alike.
But this wasn’t the end of my name game; at home I had another name making me cringe even more than “LeRoy” did at school. My mother came from a family of nine children, my father from a blended family of ten. They all had their own demons to deal with when it came to names: Agnes, Milo, Melvin, Lucille, Florence, Otto, Rodney and LeRoy to name a few. Then my oldest cousin, and at that time my only cousin on my mother’s side, was already named LeRoy so they had to come up with something to differentiate the group of “LeRoy’s” that had formed under the family tree. When I was born my mom thought I resembled her oldest brother, my uncle Milo. It may have been the baldheads or at least that is my hope. Despite being a golden-hearted bachelor farmer, my uncle Milo was one of the most unattractive men I have ever seen. He was all ears and nose. My mom’s family was famous for their Homburg schnozes, disproportionately large, covering a great deal of the face, and bending down parrot-like toward the mouth. He had very thin lips that stretched across his face in a broad grin running from one Dumbo sized ear to the other. He apparently didn’t like the name Milo any more than I liked the name LeRoy so the family called him “Butch”. This is what my mom decided she would call me but to distinguish me from my baldheaded namesake I became “Butchie”. I don’t think the irony of this ever struck her but a gay boy answering to the call of “Buthchie” just wasn’t right. The name clung to me like a sweaty t-shirt on a hot August day. Even now, some of my aunts still trip over my name when I see them at family gatherings forgetting that I am a grown man and spilling out the dreaded “Butchie” before they remember their error and correct themselves with little laughs of embarrassment.
It’s amazing how much a wrong name can torment a child well into adulthood. I’m sure my parents had no intention of hurting me although after I was named “LeRoy” they followed it up with Steven, Sandra, Debbie and Bonnie, opting for more run of the mill names that blended in with the current mid-western culture. I was able to grow into the name Lee, the name my father went by, and when coupled with the correct pronunciation of Melahn it becomes a series of very soft sounds that suit me. It made me think very carefully about the name we would eventually chose for our child, but like most kids she dislikes her name immensely.