Wednesday, April 06, 2011

What's in a (Southern) name?

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.

15 comments:

Jen said...

I push back on being labeled a southerner, but at the same time love our family names: Jiggy, Buddy (nickname for my uncle and a female cousin 2x removed), Melvin Clifford, Myron, Orville, and a great aunt named "Wild Woman!"

Ronald said...

My wife's family has some winners: Judson, Claxton and Euzelle.
I'm working on a piece for hubpages about the only cop killed in the line of duty in Lancaster, SC: Benjamin Franklin Sowell. Died July 4, 1937.

lkmnews said...

There's another Ottis - an infamous one: Ottis Toole, the horrible excuse for humanity who, among other things, may well have murdered young Adam Walsh.
This Ottis has gone to meet his maker and is likely in the opposite locale than your uncle...

Anonymous said...

My grandfather was Olin. My brother's middle name is Carroll and I know a Karol (also male) I've known of an older gentleman named Kermit. And I have an Uncle Hubert. These Southern names go on and on.

JennAMom said...

My maternal grandfather was an L.M. too... Labe Monroe. Everybody called him Bub. I loved him dearly.

Anonymous said...

Several generations back, in my mom's family there is an Ettrice and Uttrice. I never figured out the difference!

Lynne Stevenson said...

Some of the names in my family are/have been - Harry Tolbert, Marion Wilson, Mildred Ida, Orin Martin, Edna Dixon, Willadeen Patricia, Willard Perry, Virginia Alma, Malcolm Chastain, Annie Sue, Lila Mae. My mother was Rebecca Dixon, and her twin was named Roberta Nixon.

Linda said...

Tommy, you and I have spoken before. My mother's family had a farm/sawmill between Odom and Surrency. Her oldest brother was Ottis Reddish born around 1896. My grandfather's name was James Ishom. There were so many James Ishom Reddishs in the area that I have been unable to discern which one I'm related to!

Anonymous said...

I've got one of those first names that just leads to trouble. It's "Bolyn." If it were "Jim" and someone went looking for the "Jim" that caused a problem, there would likely be four or five of the fellows he'd have to go through before he got to the real "Jim." With "Bolyn" I'm guilty immediately. I can't escape anything.

So, moms, name the new baby something common like "Sue." So when the neighbor comes up to your door and says "Sue" did so-and-so, you can say "that must be some other "Sue."

Bolyn McClung
Pineville

Kathi Smith said...

Tommy,
My maternal grandmother's name was Rosalie, somewhere in the family tree there was an "Azilee", although I am not at all sure about the spelling of that one, and my maternal grandaddy was Yancey. But growing up in Rock Hill, a church friend's dad was named Ottis. Ironically, I saw his obit in the Rock Hill paper the day before your column ran ...
http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/heraldonline/obituary.aspx?n=ottis-auten&pid=150029512&fhid=6358

Anonymous said...

My paternal side of the family has names such as: Myrtis, Virgerie, and Una Mae. My paternal grandmother's name was Eula Magnolia! I am so glad I do not have her name.
Also, your blog reminds me that my mother also learn how to cook at 12 this was in 1933. She was the oldest daughter and she helped raised her brothers and sister. Her mother (my grandma) had to go to work because her daddy (my grandaddy) died from a cotton mill accident. Your blog reminds us that we all fall on tough times and the government has not always been there to pick us up!

VirginiaM said...

You're so right about names coming and going. Someday the nursing homes will be filled with Tiffanys and Kaylas. And babies will once again be named Mildred and Wilbur (and Little Tommy).

Dan.Eliot said...

Being the grown-up isn’t about relinquishing parental control. It’s about self-awareness and honesty. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, tired and stressed – remember: the kids didn’t choose this. Sure, maybe you didn’t either, but the point is: it’s not their fault that you’re feeling this way.

help for single Dads

Anonymous said...

Those names will NEVER go away as long as there as white trailer trash around and it looks like they are reproducing like rabbits or in words you can under stand Tommy: "Watermelons over to Cordele". God help us all.

Anonymous said...

to the poster that says she pushes back on being a southerner...why? ..Nothing better then being from the south...anyway..heres some of my family names.
Estelle, Meda, Thamer, Ethel, Marie