My uncle Ottis died last week. I put his obit on Facebook. A friend who grew up in Ohio read it and said “Man, I love those names.”
Mr. Yarbrough was born in Odum, Georgia, a son of the late Elmer Emerson and Fannie Pearl Tripp Yarbrough…
Most names fade over generations. It might not seem like it now, but one day parents will stop naming their boys Brandon and their girls Caitlin or Katelyn or Qateleyne or however the mom demands to spell it before the epidural. Someday those names will sound as odd to our ears as Ezra and Myrtice do now.
My mama, Virginia, is one of seven: her, Junior, Hazel, Ernest, Ada Mae, Ottis and Buddy. My mom and Aunt Mae are the only ones left.
My daddy was officially L.M., for Leonard Milton, even though everybody called him Tommy. (To a few members of my family, I’m still Little Tommy. I know.)
His sisters were Estelle and Lizzie Mae.
There are lots of people named Otis, one T, from Otis Redding to Otis the drunk on "The Andy Griffith Show." But an Ottis, two T’s, is rare.
I’ve met just two: Uncle Ottis and his son, Ottis Jr. The only other one I’ve heard of is the former NFL running back Ottis Anderson. My uncle pronounced it AH-tis. His son and the running back say it OH-tis.
There’s a great Web toy called the NameVoyager. Type in a name and it shows you how popular it’s been over time. Ottis was never popular. It peaked in the 1910s. Since the 1950s, it hasn’t appeared enough to measure. Uncle Ottis was born in 1940.
Both sides of my family were country people. My mom and dad picked cotton from the time they were little.
When my grandmother got sick, my mom ended up in charge of the household chores. She was 12. She made two pans of biscuits every single morning for years. She made them once in a while for my dad as a treat. After he died, that was it for the biscuits. She’s never made another one.
They all had hard lives, but Ottis might have had the hardest. His wife left him while he was in Vietnam. He raised his boy as a single dad and took care of my grandmother in her later years. Then he had a stroke and spent his last few years in assisted living. He liked tangerines because he could peel them with his one good hand.
Most of my mom’s people settled around Florence, S.C., and when my grandmother was alive we’d drive up there every year. I remember Uncle Ottis chain-smoking Chesterfields and falling asleep on the couch, his little black-and-white TV playing “The Twilight Zone.”
They have a national military cemetery in Florence – it’s a smaller version of the one in Arlington. All those rows of white headstones. A dozen of us came to Uncle Ottis’ service. A recording played taps. Two men in uniform folded the flag on his casket and gave it to his son.
Some people long for the good old days. But for a lot of people who grew up like my parents, the days weren’t so good. They’re grateful for air conditioning and washing machines and something other than biscuits every day of the week.
But with every gain comes some loss. A fine old Southern name. A good man who had a tough life.
We stop and pay attention for a moment, so we can remember. Things pass.